American tech companies have “enjoyed” a tenuous and complicated relationship with China for some time now. As one of the biggest and fastest growing emerging markets, China is a major target for American companies looking to expand internationally.
In recent months, Apple has faced a contentious back and forth with the Chinese government as it attempts to expand and compete against domestic tech companies in China’s – very – rich marketplace. Now, Facebook is on deck for a similar fight. After being kicked out of the world’s second-largest economy, Facebook went back to the drawing board to come up with a solution to what China said was a non-negotiable condition of re-entering the Chinese marketplace. Censorship.
Now, while Facebook is constantly – and often erroneously – accused of censoring users in the United States and other Western nations, the Chinese are actually demanding that functionality if Facebook wants to come back into the country. For seven years, Facebook has not been able to return to China, and, in that time, the company has vacillated between protecting freedom of expression and wanting to tap into the huge money-making machine that is the Chinese market.
Closely guarded reports coming out of Facebook corporate R&D, as conveyed in various tech publications as well as international media including Reuters, reveal the company has been working on a censorship tool that may meet Chinese specifications. At this point, nothing is officially confirmed, but these reports claim Zuckerberg has been meeting with top Chinese propaganda officials in an effort to reach a mutually-acceptable solution. This solution, according to former and current Facebook employees, would allow the Chinese government to block posts to and from certain regions of the country, essentially partitioning the network inside China.
Facebook spokesperson Arielle Aryah told Reuters, “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. Our focus right now is on helping Chinese businesses and developers expand to new markets outside of China by using our ad platform.”
This statement appears at odds with the reports of the blocking tech, which may be an attempt by Facebook to mollify American or other Western users who are mortified that Facebook would actively participate in the suppression of free speech. At this point, it’s a he said/she said, but time will tell. In the meantime, the conversation is growing louder as people will continue to speculate as to who’s got the right scoop.