Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg is fighting to get the company back in China, but it will face fierce competition if it returns.
Facebook has reportedly developed a censorship tool designed to facilitate the social media platform’s return to China, where it has been banned since 2009, according to the New York Times. A Chinese partner would have access to news feeds and be given the ability to suppress information.
The tool is an internal experiment; nonetheless, that it exists suggests that Facebook may be willing to compromise on its mission “to make the world more open and connected.” Gaining access to and connecting China’s 700 million internet users would move the company closer to creating a global social network, but re-entry may come at the cost of internet freedom.
Several employees reportedly left Facebook over the company’s censorship project.
Zuckerberg’s eagerness to bring Facebook to China is well-documented. He is learning Mandarin, has met with Chinese president Xi Jinping and other government officials, and has made several high-profile trips to China to meet with domestic internet industry leaders.
Even if Facebook returns to China, it may face challenges securing a position in the market.
Google, Facebook, and Twitter are all blocked in China and can only be accessed by jumping the “Great Firewall” with a VPN, but that doesn’t mean there is a massive search engine and social media void.
Baidu, China’s Google, had 660 million monthly active users as of September 2016. Weibo, which provides services similar to Twitter and Facebook has around 300 million active users, and WeChat, an online chat and posting platform, had 697 million active users by December of last year. The latter two platforms emerged after Facebook left the country.
These Chinese companies already provide censored social media services designed to connect Chinese citizens.
While Facebook would offer Chinese users the ability to connect with users around the world, the site is similar to Renren and Kaixin, two Chinese platforms which are no longer popular.
By appeasing China, Facebook may be risking its reputation for what “would probably be a small sliver of the Chinese market,” Tim Culpan, technology columnist for Bloomberg Gadfly, asserts. He also notes that no matter how much Zuckerberg incorporates himself into Chinese society, he will always be an outsider.
Culpan recommends that Facebook partner with a leading Chinese internet company like Tencent on a joint venture project rather than force Facebook back into China.
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