Rubio Presses Facebook On Special Relationship With China

L: (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images) R: Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks on stage during the annual Facebook F8 developers conference in San Jose, California, U.S., April 18, 2017. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

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Eric Lieberman Managing Editor
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Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida pressed a Facebook executive Wednesday to answer how the decision to remove the page of an exiled Chinese expatriate came about, while implying the act of censorship may have been carried out due to a desire to get into the massive foreign market.

“What I want to be clear is, was there any pressure from the Chinese government to block his account?” Rubio asked Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch.

“No senator, we reviewed a report on that account and analyzed it through regular channels using our regular procedures,” Stretch responded. “The blocking was not of the account in its entirety, but I believe was a specific post that violated our policy.”

“So you can testify today that you did not come under pressure from the Chinese government or any of its representatives or people working for them to block his account or block whatever is you blocked?”

“I want to make sure I am being precise and clear: we did receive a report from representatives of the Chinese government about the account,” Stretch clarified. “We analyzed that report as we would any other and took action solely based on our policies.”

The line of questioning came during a U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing Wednesday called “Social Media Influence in the 2016 U.S. Elections” — the second of three congressional hearings in less than two days.

It relates to Guo Wengui, a billionaire and adamant critic of the Chinese government who fled China after the country’s authorities accused him of bribery. Empowered by his remote safety, Guo levies his own accusations against China, claiming he has direct knowledge of its espionage operations abroad among other improprieties.

Facebook removed a page with apparent affiliations to Guo and blocked a profile under his name, citing transgressions against its terms and conditions. Specifically, Facebook alleges that Guo’s ostensible page must be removed because it received a complaint that the account posted someone’s personal details. Guo has been using Facebook to publicly condemn China for corrupt practices.

Now, Rubio wants to know if Facebook’s decision was purely based on considering its terms and services, or if it was a capitulation to a country that has blocked its platform.

“Facebook’s not allowed to operate in China, is that correct?” Rubio continued, seemingly already knowing that answer.

After Stretch answered in the affirmative with a minor caveat, Rubio gradually illustrated why he was going down this train of thought. (RELATED: Facebook Reportedly Sneaks App Into China In Unprecedented Move)

“There have been press reports that Facebook may have potentially developed software to suppress posts from appearing in people’s news feeds in specific geographic areas, and the speculation is it’s being done for the purposes of getting into the Chinese market,” said Rubio. “Is that accurate? Has Facebook developed software to suppress posts from appearing in people’s news feeds in specific geographic areas?”

Stretch said that since Facebook’s services are blocked in China, any software they may have is not available there.

However, he did explain that there have been many instances of foreign governments reporting content they deem illegal under their unique laws.

“A great example of this is Holocaust denial in Germany,” said Stretch. “In our position with respect to reports like that is if there is content that is visible in a country that violates local law and we are on specific notice of that content, we deploy what we call ‘geo-blocking’ or ‘IP [internet protocol] blocking,’ so that the content will not be visible in that country but remains available on the servers.”

Rubio points out that publicly criticizing a country’s officials is illegal in some nations, like China, so essentially Facebook has the capability to block certain users from censuring a government. He alleges that Facebook could conceivably do this to gain entry into a country, perhaps like China, which has more than one billion available users — an apparent imputation that Facebook removed Guo to capitalize on the country’s enormous market. (RELATED: Facebook Is Gunning For An Office In China, Says Report)

“We have the capability to ensure that our service complies with local law, that’s accurate. We take a very nuanced approach to reports of illegal content,” said Stretch “We believe our mission is to enable people to share and connect and we believe political expression is at the core of what we provide.”

Rubio quickly cut in and asked with a very subtle smirk: “What if political expression is illegal in the country.”

“So in … in the vast majority of cases where we are on notice of locally illegal content, it has nothing to do with political expression,” Stretch responded. “It’s things like blasphemy in parts of the world.” (RELATED: Pakistani Man Sentenced To Death For Facebook ‘Blasphemy’)

Rubio said he decided to address this course of questioning because a foreign influence campaign does not appear to be a specific part of Facebook (nor Google and Twitter’s) terms of service, and that maybe it should be since posting personal information, like Guo allegedly did, is prohibited.

“If you can prove that someone is doing it on behalf of a foreign government, is that a violation of the terms of service?” asked Rubio.

None answered directly in the affirmative, but said such conduct usually falls under other rules against violations.

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