Will Facebook Censor for a Shot at the Chinese Market?

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The story is headlined “Facebook Seeking Friends in the Beltway,” but one quote seemed destined to make the social-networking giant a few enemies. In a story today about Facebook’s efforts to expand its lobbying efforts in Washington, the Wall Street Journal quotes a lobbyist saying the company may censor some content overseas:

“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.

Facebook has been blocked in China since 2009, but after founder Mark Zuckerberg visited Beijing last year there has been widespread expectations that the company will eventually make a deal to re-enter the Chinese market. The Conner quote, while not specifically referring to China, is a hint at what steps the company might take to appease the Chinese government’s fears about the spread of dissent online. Given the concerns of some members of Congress about U.S. tech companies abetting censorship, Conner’s remarks seem impolitic to say the least. Five years ago representatives of Cisco, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo faced tough questions from Congress about their dealings in China. Since then Google publicly reversed its previous policy of submitting to Chinese censorship, and now directs mainland users to its uncensored Hong Kong site.

As Facebook contemplates what course to pursue in China, the prospect that it will follow Google’s earlier path of censorship will undoubtedly lead to complaints that it is compromising its integrity. Earlier this year Chinese media commentator Michael Anti denounced Facebook for deleting his profile because he didn’t use his legal name, Zhao Jing. Today he updated his Twitter bio, calling himself “the guy whom Facebook first killed right before they kiss China.” It’s a small taste of the censure the company can expect if it bends to China’s restrictions on information for a shot at the mainland market.