Facebook said to create censorship tool to enter China again

The Chinese government wants more control over the content visible on social networks

China Great Hall
Michael Kan/IDGNS

Facebook has reportedly developed a software tool that will help keep certain content away from users’ news feeds in certain geographies, reflecting the company’s apparent willingness to meet Chinese government censorship demands part of the way.

The social networking site has been banned in China since 2009 because of the government’s censorship rules and like many other U.S. technology companies would like to reenter the market with nearly 1.4 billion people.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg has learned Mandarin, visited the country often and cultivated the local leadership including President Xi Jinping.

The new tool suppresses posts from appearing to people in certain geographies but will not be used directly by Facebook, reported The New York Times on Tuesday, citing three current and former Facebook employees, who spoke on condition of anonymity as the tool is confidential.

The software will instead enable a partner, most likely a Chinese company, to monitor popular stories and topics across the social network, and who would “have full control to decide whether those posts should show up in users’ feeds.”

At an internal event in July, Zuckerberg was asked about the controversial tool. “It’s better for Facebook to be a part of enabling conversation, even if it’s not yet the full conversation,” Zuckerberg said, according to the employees, NYT reported.

There is no indication that Facebook has offered the tool to the Chinese and like other experiments by the company, the tool could be shelved, the sources told the newspaper.

Facebook is already facing criticism in the U.S. for fake news in its feeds in the run-up to the U.S. presidential elections. The social networking site has said more than 99 percent of content people see on the site is authentic, but the issue will probably lead to demands in some other countries for more controls and even censorship of social media.

China passed in November a new cybersecurity law that gives it greater control over the internet, including by requiring local storage of certain data and  requiring any major company working in the country to be subject to "security reviews" by the Chinese government.

“We have long said that we are interested in China, and are spending time understanding and learning more about the country. However, we have not made any decision on our approach to China,” a Facebook spokeswoman wrote in an email on Tuesday, when asked to comment on the NYT report. “Our focus right now is on helping Chinese businesses and developers expand to new markets outside China by using our ad platform,” she added.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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