Facebook wants to enter China so bad it’s reportedly building censorship tools

Arbiter of truth?
Arbiter of truth?
Image: Reuters/Mariana Bazo
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Facebook is serious enough about entering China that it is making efforts to meet the single most important criteria for it to get there: a robust commitment to censorship.

The New York Times reports (paywall) that the social media giant has internally developed a tool designed to help suppress content, in hopes that it will appease authorities. News of the software’s creation highlights Facebook’s commitment to China, along with the ethical dilemma it will inevitably face.

Citing unnamed employees, the Times states that a team led by vice president Vaughn Smith has been working on a tool that monitors what popular stories and topics appear in a user’s feed, based at least partially on geographic origin. The tool can then be used to hide these posts.

Like other social networks—including Twitter, Dropbox, and Japan’s Line—Facebook remains inaccessible from within mainland China. The only way to reach it is through a virtual private network (VPN), a service that lets users inside China circumvent the so-called Great Firewall.

Facebook has a team in China focused on selling advertising space to domestic companies wanting to reach overseas users, but it has no consumer presence in the country. Zuckerberg has launched a charm offensive in China in an apparent effort to boost his visibility and credibility in the eyes of China’s ruling party, which remains increasingly wary of foreign tech companies operating there.

It’s not clear if and when the tool will see the light of day. The Times adds that while Facebook is building the software, a third party will deploy it and be responsible for what gets censored and what does not.

But its mere creation has reportedly caused tension among employees, and some of its developers have left the project. The New York Times writes that when staff asked Zuckerberg about the tool’s purpose, he mentioned the company’s “nascent” plans for China, stating: “It’s better for Facebook to be a part of enabling conversation, even if it’s not yet the full conversation.” This was Google’s rationale for censoring content after it entered China, but political and management issues ultimately caused it to give up in 2010.

The revelation of the controversial initiative comes amid criticism against Facebook for spreading “fake news” during the US presidential election, as well as for creating “filter bubbles” that reinforce users’ existing biases.

Zuckerberg initially said he was hesitant to take aggressive action against hoaxes and misinformation, stating: “I believe we must be extremely cautious about becoming arbiters of truth ourselves.”

That sentiment apparently does not apply as much to Facebook’s operations in China.