Facebook Has Created Censorship Software For China

Some Facebook employees have already left the corporation after they discovered it was creating censorship software designed for China. The fake news hysteria is recent days has also been used as an excuse to censor dissent by some governments.

Some Facebook employees have already left the corporation after they discovered it was creating censorship software designed for China. The fake news hysteria is recent days has also been used as an excuse to censor dissent by some governments.

The social network has quietly developed software to suppress posts from appearing in people’s news feeds in specific geographic areas, according to three current and former Facebook employees, who asked for anonymity because the tool is confidential. The feature was created to help Facebook get into China, a market where the social network has been blocked, these people said. Mr. Zuckerberg has supported and defended the effort, the people added.

Facebook has restricted content in other countries before, such as Pakistan, Russia and Turkey, in keeping with the typical practice of American internet companies that generally comply with government requests to block certain content after it is posted. Facebook blocked roughly 55,000 pieces of content in about 20 countries between July 2015 and December 2015, for example. But the new feature takes that a step further by preventing content from appearing in feeds in China in the first place.

Facebook does not intend to suppress the posts itself. Instead, it would offer the software to enable a third party  in this case, most likely a partner Chinese company  to monitor popular stories and topics that bubble up as users share them across the social network, the people said. Facebook’s partner would then have full control to decide whether those posts should show up in users’ feeds.
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The current and former Facebook employees caution that the software is one of many ideas the company has discussed with respect to entering China and, like many experiments inside Facebook, it may never see the light of day. The feature, whose code is visible to engineers inside the company, has so far gone unused, and there is no indication that Facebook has offered it to the authorities in China.

But the project illustrates the extent to which Facebook may be willing to compromise one of its core mission statements, “to make the world more open and connected,” to gain access to a market of 1.4 billion Chinese people. Even as Facebook faces pressure to continue growing  Mr. Zuckerberg has often asked where the company’s next billion users will come from  China has been cordoned off to the social network since 2009 because of the government’s strict rules around censorship of user content.

The suppression software has been contentious within Facebook, which is separately grappling with what should or should not be shown to its users after the American presidential election’s unexpected outcome spurred questions over fake news on the social network. Several employees who were working on the project have left Facebook after expressing misgivings about it, according to the current and former employees.

Facebook currently sells advertising for some Chinese businesses from its Hong Kong office. Among its customers are state-media sites that act as the propaganda arm of the Chinese government, and that operate official accounts where they post articles. Chinese citizens who wish to gain access to Facebook must tunnel in using a technology known as a virtual private network, or VPN.

Unveiling a new censorship tool in China could lead to more demands to suppress content from other countries. The fake-news problem, which has hit countries across the globe, has already led some governments to use the issue as an excuse to target sites of political rivals, or shut down social media sites altogether.

Over the summer, several Facebook employees who were working on the suppression tool left the company, the current and former employees said. Internally, so many employees asked about the project and its ambitions on an internal forum that, in July, it became a topic at one of Facebook’s weekly Friday afternoon question-and-answer sessions.