There’s good reason to be sceptical: most media outlets are citing Shanghai-based Sina.com as the source of the news, but Sina’s own story cites “local media reports citing unnamed sources”.
It’s not inconceivable that local Chinese news outlets would break news about major Facebook strategic initiatives, but it’s unlikely.
Facebook has more or less denied the report, saying: “We are interested in China, just as we are many other countries, and while we are studying and learning about them all, we have no specific plans for China at this time.” It’s possible the Chinese media simply came across evidence of some of that “studying and learning”.
But let’s imagine the reports are right. What would a Facebook push into China even look like?
Facebook registered facebook.cn back in 2007, but the network has been blocked for almost a year now. The site as it is is teeming with violations of Chinese censorship law. There are dozens of groups advocating independence for Tibet, a boycott of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, protections for the Falun Gong, and so on.
Because Facebook is a social network, making it China-friendly would be a lot more complicated than Google’s former censorship agreement. It would be relatively straightforward to prevent users in China from joining certain groups, but what about Chinese users with friends abroad?
In order to keep forbidden content from Chinese users, Facebook would have to censor their friends profiles’ and feeds. They would also have to prevent non-Chinese users from inviting Chinese friends to join objectionable groups. This last bit seems like the biggest problem, because that’s something that people outside China would actually notice, and they would no doubt cry foul.
There would be a financial cost too. As the NYT reports today, China’s existing social networks and other large sites have to employ “throngs” of administrators to keep an eye out for illegal content. Facebook would have to do the same, hurting its margins in the country.
The site would also no doubt be swarmed by (more) Chinese propagandists. China routinely attempts to direct online conversations, the Times reports, hiring “armies of low-paid commentators to monitor blogs and chat rooms for sensitive issues, then spin online comment in the government’s favour.
All of this would be an absolute PR disaster for Facebook, and is no doubt more than the company would be willing to do. So the real question for Facebook entering the country is how much China would be willing to bend its own rules to let them in. Seeing as China already has popular social networks that it can far more easily control, they might not be willing to cede much ground.
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