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Facebook Reportedly Built a Censorship Tool With China in Mind

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Facebook has developed but not offered software that would let a third party control which posts appear in users' feeds, according to a report.
Facebook has developed but not offered software that would let a third party control which posts appear in users' feeds, according to a report. Credit: Facebook
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Facebook is so keen to return to China that it built a tool that would geographically censor information in the country, according to the New York Times.

While that may help the Chinese government get comfortable with Facebook, the company's re-entry may not happen for years, if at all, given licensing restrictions and other regulations that favor locally owned companies. China, which blocked the world's largest social network in 2009, has few incentives to allow the social network in.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg visits China frequently, and yet the company is no closer to putting employees in a downtown Beijing office it leased in 2014, according to a person familiar with the matter. The company hasn't been able to get a license to put workers there, even though they would be selling ads shown outside the country, not running a domestic social network, the person said. The ad sales work is currently done in Hong Kong. The person asked not to be identified discussing private matters.

The censorship software is among the many projects Facebook has initiated and may never be implemented, nor has it been used so far, according to the Times.

The report comes as Facebook is under scrutiny for the ways it does or does not control the flow of information and misinformation in users' feeds in the United States, following a presidential campaign where so-called "fake news" often spread quickly.

"We have long said that we are interested in China, and are spending time understanding and learning more about the country," a Facebook spokeswoman said in an e-mailed statement. "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 China by using our ad platform." The company declined to comment on the New York Times report or its real estate interests.

While China represents the biggest untapped market for Facebook, information and web access in the country is strictly controlled and allowing the social network in would raise the risks that unwanted news and views would spread.

It also faces entrenched opposition. Tencent Holdings Ltd.'s WeChat has more than 800 million monthly active users tapping into similar services to those offered by Zuckerberg's company.

China and Facebook aren't engaged in ongoing talks about the conditions of a return, according to a separate person familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified as the matter is private. The ability to censor content would be a precondition, not the deciding factor, in any entry to the Chinese market, the person said.

The New York Times said Facebook's tool would block content from appearing in the news feed. It would be provided to Chinese partners to help them censor content, the newspaper reported, citing unnamed current and former employees. Zuckerberg has supported and defended the effort, saying that it was better for Facebook to enable conversation in a country even if it's not the full conversation, according to the Times.

-- Bloomberg News