The New York Times reports that social-media giant Facebook is developing a news “suppression tool” in a bid to woo the Chinese government. The software would prevent certain posts or topics from appearing in users’ news feeds, and it’s intended to help convince the Chinese Communist Party, which insists on the ability to censor news and internet access, to let the popular website break into the 1 billion-plus-large market.
Other tech companies have already had to decide whether or not they would play ball with the Chinese government, and their decisions have been checkered: Twitter is banned for refusing to agree to China’s terms; Google directs Chinese users to its Hong Kong service in order to avoid censorship; and LinkedIn controversially agreed in late 2014 to abide by China’s censorship policies and hand over partial control of its operations in that country to state-friendly venture capital firms in exchange for permission to operate there.
But now Facebook’s overtures towards the CCP, if they ultimately come off, threaten to set a decisive precedent for other companies to follow suit. The strategy is not without its opponents both at Facebook and within the Chinese government. A number of programmers and Facebook employees left the company in protest over the suppression software. And Chinese President Xi Jinping, for his part, has cracked down on media censorship during his tenure and will be resistant to the idea of letting such a large service into China. But the incentives for both sides are obvious, as well: mainstream respectability for the government in Beijing and huge profits for the Silicon Valley company.
But as the Times piece points out, certain Chinese policy-makers are also willing to consider allowing the entry of Facebook into the country because it would “enable easy tracking of political opinions deemed problematic.” That is, not only would Facebook have to agree to a pre-existing censorship and news-suppression apparatus just to get its foot in the door, it would wind up itself becoming a tool of state surveillance and control.
Facebook’s mission statement proclaims a commitment to a “more open and connected” world, but in selling out to the Chinese government the world’s largest social network risks seriously undermining that high-minded ideal. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg reportedly told his employees in July that, “It’s better for Facebook to be a part of enabling conversation, even if it’s not yet the full conversation.” Maybe, but in order to do any good Mr. Zuckerberg will need to fight more aggressively on behalf of the rights of Facebook users, whatever country they’re in; so far at least, it’s a fight he’s shown little interest in having.