Facebook is developing censorship tools to suppress controversial content as a means to appease China’s ruling Communist Party and re-enter the world’s most populous country.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that a small team, with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s blessing, is developing software that can censor posts from appearing in the feeds of people in a specified geographic area. The Times cites three current and former Facebook employees as saying that the tool was designed to get Facebook back into China where it has been blocked for a number of years.
A number of American Internet companies already operate under partial or full censorship in order to do business in China. Professional networking company LinkedIn courted controversy for allowing censorship of its Chinese platform. Apple has partially censored content on iTunes and iBooks, but has still had problems, most notably earlier this year when both platforms were shut down unexpectedly following orders from Beijing.
Facebook already partially censors some content in a number of countries as a condition of operating in those territories. For example, the company blocks already posted content in Pakistan, Russia and Turkey at the behest of the governments of those countries. The Times reports that the new censorship tools take things further by blocking posts from ever reaching Chinese users’ Facebook feeds.
The Times report adds that Facebook would not be in control of what content would be censored, rather the company would allow a third-party partner, almost inevitably a Chinese company, to become the information gatekeeper.
Sources told the Times that the censorship tools may never be used or be enough to allow the company to enter China and was one of many different approaches Facebook was looking to use to enter the Middle Kingdom. However, the news that Facebook was developing such tools is likely to lead to a storm of criticism, not least because the strategy is somewhat at odds with the company’s stated mission of making the world more connected and transparent.
Facebook is still reeling from the fake news controversy that many felt had an influence on the U.S. elections. Zuckerberg’s response to the criticism of the social network was initially prickly, downplaying the size and importance of fake news on Facebook. The company has since cracked down on fake news sites, prohibiting them from using its advertising network, which places ads on other people’s websites, with Zuckerberg pledging to filter out “misinformation.”