China and the nature of Facebook

Reports have been percolating for a couple of weeks that Facebook will partner with Chinese search engine Baidu to launch Facebook China, or something similar. Anyone who has followed the history of foreign Internet firms in China knows that this is fraught territory. Chinese competitors are well established, and while many successful Chinese Internet firms have foreign backing of some kind (even Baidu once claimed Google as an investor), marquee marriages between Chinese and Foreign Internet companies have often been troubled.

There are others better placed than me to speculate on the likely business fortunes of a Facebook China (cf. Epstein, Bishop), but what really interests me are the communication challenge and reputational consequences. Some glimpse of those possible consequences came in a Wall Street Journal article about Facebook’s lobbying efforts that ran yesterday. It included the following:

[Facebook] is talking with potential Chinese partners about entering the huge China market, where the government has been cracking down on dissidents. That crackdown has come in response to the uprisings shaking authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes, movements that have used U.S.-based social-media sites like Facebook and Twitter as organizing tools.

“Maybe we will block content in some countries, but not others,” Adam Conner, a Facebook lobbyist, told the Journal. “We are occasionally held in uncomfortable positions because now we’re allowing too much, maybe, free speech in countries that haven’t experienced it before,” he said.

Yowza! Better work on those talking points and come up with something that doesn’t sound quite so paternalistic. Read as generously as possible, this is one quote from what one presumes was a larger discussion on the issues of running transnational social networks in countries with different approaches to censorship and freedom of speech. Read less generously, it sounds like a lobbyist for Facebook arrogating to his client the responsibility to decide what constitutes an appropriate amount of free speech in any given country. Risky territory.

From a business point of view deciding an appropriate amount of free speech might be a practical necessity. From a public communication point of view it’s dangerous. Five years ago, when Facebook was still a plucky upstart too trivial to be noticed, Yahoo, Google, Cisco and Microsoft were hauled in front of a congressional hearing to testify on their activities in China and their willingness to accommodate governments with illiberal approaches to free speech. It was not a banner moment for the American Internet industry. “Moral pygmies!” declared Tom Lantos, the principal congressional antagonist. Much of the cast has changed and Tom Lantos has since died, but the issue remains sensitive. (Not all the cast has changed. Facebook’s current head of communication, Elliott Schrage, represented Google in the 2007 hearings.)

Facebook itself has not committed publicly to anything in China. They also haven’t yet committed any of the blunders that those four firms did (most notoriously Yahoo, with the Shi Tao affair). Finally, Facebook hasn’t made nobility a part of their brand in the way that Google conspicuously did in its early days, something that was used against Google in its China engagement. In fact, if anything Facebook is known for a kind of calculating amorality that may be useful in the ruthlessly sharp-elbowed Chinese Internet world.

But what’s important here is not how Facebook sees itself, but rather how people at large see it, and how activists and politicians think they can use it to drive their own agendas. Whether Facebook likes it or not, it has been publicly associated with recent events in the Middle East and is widely seen as a force for enabling dissidents and protestors whose causes resonate with western publics and politicians. See for example New York Timesstories here, here and here. Evgeny Morozov and Malcolm Gladwell might ridicule the notion of social media as democracy tools, but that won’t necessarily dispel a belief that was made clear in the 2007 hearings: American Internet firms should represent American values.

Companies’ decisions about China are revealing. Facebook’s decision on whether or not to formally enter China will be especially interesting. It will establish something fundamental about the identity of one of the two most powerful Internet companies on the planet. Is Facebook, as some have supposed, the great enabler of democracy? Or is it a company of business pragmatists willing to censor (or delegate censorship) in order to open a potentially lucrative market? The reality is probably more nuanced than either of those positions, but as far as public perception goes it will be difficult to have it both ways. How does one balance groups of stakeholders with completely incompatible views on what constitutes a responsible and conscientious Internet firm?

The nut of the problem is that, right or wrong, democracy activists, American politicians and the Chinese authorities all tend to see American Internet firms as standard bearers for western values. Facebook’s task is to convince the Chinese authorities otherwise while not making activists or western users in general feel betrayed. I can think of few more precarious communication challenges. The quote above is an unpromising start.


Obama hosted a town hall at Facebook HQ yesterday. Interesting. And likely to be noticed here in Beijing.

See also:

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.