Rumors have been circulating for some time now that Facebook is poised to make its entry into China - one of the few remaining countries in which the social network has no presence. As it stands, Facebook is currently blocked in China.
But entry into China isn't as simple as unblocking access or launching a Chinese-language version. Should Facebook enter China (or "when Facebook enters China," rather), it is likely it will be required by the Chinese government to censor material and hand over user data.
That requirement is something that Google has struggled with, eventually withdrawing from mainland China last year. While Google remains the largest search engine in the world, that status doesn't extend to China where Baidu dominates. Interestingly, some of the rumors of Facebook's entry into China involve a partnership with the Web services company.
"Make the World More Open and Connected" - Unless Governments Complain
Questions of censorship remain front and center in these discussions about Facebook's global reach - both abroad and state-side. Indeed, Facebook's mission is to "make the world more open and connected," a stance that - much like Google's "Don't be evil" mission - seems to run counter of suppression of free speech.
But recent remarks from Facebook suggest that the social networking company is evaluating just how that notion of free speech works - and doesn't work - in different countries. Facebook is indicating that it may be willing to crack down on content posted to the site, in order to appease governments.
"Maybe we will block content in some countries, but not others," Adam Conner, a Facebook lobbyist, told The Wall Street 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."
The WSJ notes that this stance might not go over well with Congressional leaders in Washington D.C., many of whom are displeased that Facebook has sidestepped questions about its plans for China. Furthermore, the WSJ adds, Facebook hasn't signed on to the Global Network Initiative, an industry group to which both Google and Microsoft belong that lays out ways to protect free speech as Internet technologies expand globally.
Facebook and Political Expression
This concern over free speech isn't simply about China, of course. And for its part Facebook has been credited with a key role in many of the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, giving activists an important tool for unfettered political expression. The site has remained tight-lipped about its thoughts on that role, although the company did respond to hacking incidents that appeared to target Tunisian activists. (See Alexis Madrigal's account in The Atlantic.) However, Facebook has insisted that the actions it took in that case were about security and not about politics.
In China, it will be more difficult to separate these intertwined questions of security, free speech and politics, and as such, the waters may be particularly treacherous for Facebook as it works to balance its push to connect the whole world and to do so under the banner of "open."