Facebook: Please, not like this

Facebook is considering launching a censorship tool that would enable the world’s biggest social network to “enter” the China market. Sadly, nobody will be surprised by anything that Mark Zuckerberg decides to do in order to enter the China market. With such low expectations, Facebook is poised to usurp Apple as China’s favorite foreign intelligence gathering partner. If the company launches in China using this strategy they will also successfully erase any bargaining power that other media organizations may hold with the Chinese authorities.

Facebook does not have to engineer a special China censorship system. It is well known that Facebook already censors and manipulates content on its platform. If Facebook can already experiment with user emotions all over the world, no engineering is needed to rejig the existing system so that, for example, Chinese do not see content that discusses China in a negative light.

A local partner is needed by all foreign media companies that want to do business in China. The local partner in this case will be legally responsible to the Chinese authorities for all content that that is generated by users in China. This means that if anything slips through the cracks, the authorities will have somebody that they can hold accountable. If something that the authorities want censored actually leaks onto the platform, the local partner will take the blame. Furthermore, local Facebook employees may get to experience what it is like to be constantly harassed by the authorities and overseas employees will think twice about future travel to China. It would not be surprising if the local partner is also held accountable for negative China information that appears on Facebook outside of China. The authorities have never shied away from using leverage when they know they hold it and local partners will do whatever it takes to keep them happy.

For Facebook, it is not simply a matter of saying “we will just do censorship for Chinese”. Will foreigners who are based in China and connected to Facebook from a Chinese IP address be censored? Will visitors to China who log in to Facebook be subjected to censorship? Will Chinese who are overseas be censored? What happens when you have Chinese and foreign friends amongst your connections? Will some of them see some messages while others get censored? How will "likes" and "comments" be censored for a mixed audience? Will all users who are based in China have their data stored in China, regardless of where they are from? Will this include historical data? What types of data will be stored in China? What information will be shared with the authorities and under which circumstances? Will Facebook make all of these requests transparent?

Let’s not kid ourselves. Facebook will hand over sensitive user information about any individuals, activists, lawyers, rights campaigners, local election candidates and agitators who are of interest to the Chinese authorities. Given the current climate, it would not be surprising if this sharing of data extended to Hong Kong and Taiwanese citizens and to all those who may be spreading messages that the authorities feel are a threat to Chinese state power. Facebook will adjust its algorithm to make sure that negative news about China does not make its way into news feeds while introducing the rest of the world to poorly-produced, cute panda videos provided by Chinese state propaganda agencies.

Facebook China will also ultimately fail. Domestic Chinese internet firms will hardly notice the influence or presence of Facebook in China. There are better and more active social platforms that Chinese like to use. Why join another social network when it is not even connected to the rest of the world? Why join another social network that censors your posts? LinkedIn’s special China product has hardly taken market share away from any of the established professional social networks. The same will hold true for Facebook. Like LinkedIn, Facebook will be able to say that they have grown their user numbers and sold more advertising because of entering the China market. But they will never be the biggest social network in China. They will end up wasting time and resources to "buy" users in a short-sighted effort to make American shareholders happy. The end result for Facebook is that they erode what little remaining brand equity that they have. The Facebook name will end up being synonymous with fake news and global censorship.

Most importantly, what kind of company does Facebook want to be? Are they content to treat Chinese like second-class citizens? Because that is how they will be treating them. Why does Facebook think that giving Chinese censored information is better than giving them no information? If Facebook believes that Chinese censorship controls will loosen, when do they think that will happen? How long are they willing to wait for that? What is Facebook doing in the meantime to convince the authorities to drop censorship?

Did Facebook consider trying to launch their platform in China by evading censorship? Why did they decide against taking that approach? We have made no secret about our strategy of using collateral freedom to evade Chinese censorship. The New York Times Chinese-language Android app is a great example of our strategy in action - their app can be downloaded in China and it is updated as new stories get published. None of these stories are censored by the authorities. The only way the authorities can stop the app is to block off 50% of the world’s internet.

Imagine if Facebook took this approach to China? Imagine if Chinese could download and use the Facebook app free of censorship? Would the authorities move to shut off half of the global internet to stop this? If they did do this, how long would they be able to maintain control? Over 700 million Chinese are connected to the internet and every one of them would be affected. Are the authorities willing to risk upsetting 700 million Chinese netizens?

If the authorities decided to not act against such a move by Facebook, then other countries that practice online censorship would also see their controls come to an end. What kind of legacy does Mark Zuckerberg want to leave behind? Does he want to be the person who acted complicitly with the Chinese authorities, the enabler of rights abuses in the name of lifting Facebook’s share price by a few points? Or does he want to help bring about an end to online censorship everywhere in the world?    

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Mon, Dec 12, 2016

China is the obstacle to Google’s plan to end internet censorship

It’s been three years since Eric Schmidt proclaimed that Google would chart a course to ending online censorship within ten years. Now is a great time to check on Google’s progress, reassess the landscape, benchmark Google’s efforts against others who share the same goal, postulate on the China strategy and offer suggestions on how they might effectively move forward.

flowers on google china plaque

Flowers left outside Google China’s headquarters after its announcement it might leave the country in 2010. Photo: Wikicommons.

What has Google accomplished since November 2013?

The first thing they have accomplished is an entire rebranding of both Google (now Alphabet) and Google Ideas (now Jigsaw). Throughout this blog post, reference is made to both new and old company names.

Google has started to develop two main tools which they believe can help in the fight against censorship. Jigsaw’s DDoS protection service, Project Shield, is effectively preventing censorship-inspired DDoS attacks and recently helped to repel an attack on Brian Krebs’ blog. The service is similar to other anti-DDoS services developed by internet freedom champions and for-profit services like Cloudflare.

Tue, Jul 05, 2016

GreatFire.org now testing VPN speed and stability in China

There is a commonly held belief in China that if you have a VPN that works then you should keep quiet about it. In terms of freedom of access to information, the problem with this approach is that access to knowledge suddenly is a secret. Today we are launching a project that we hope will destroy that model.

Our newest website, Circumvention Central (CC), aims to provide real-time information and data about circumvention solutions that work in China. Since 2011, we have been collecting data about blocked websites in China and now we will add data about the effectiveness of VPNs and other circumvention tools.

We are launching CC with four main objectives in mind.

Our first objective is to help to grow the number of Chinese who circumvent censorship restrictions in China. By sharing our information and data about these tools, we hope to show a wider audience which circumvention tools are working.

Our second objective is to improve the circumvention experience for users in China by bringing transparency to tool performance. We will measure these tools on speed (how quickly popular websites are loaded) and on stability (the extent to which popular websites load successfully).

Sat, May 07, 2016

The New York Times vs. The Chinese Authorities

Could the New York Times be setting the best path forward for news organizations in China?

Thu, Feb 18, 2016

From the desk of Lu Wei: Apple, encryption and China

Lu Wei, Director of the Cyberspace Administration of China, offers some friendly help to FBI Director James Comey.

Thu, Sep 24, 2015

Apple blocked CNNIC CA months after MITM attacks

In March of this year, Google found unauthorized digital certificates for several Google domains. The root certificate authority for these domains was the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC). CNNIC was controlled by the Chinese government through the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and is now under the management of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC). CNNIC was recognized by all major browsers as a trusted Certificate Authority. If CNNIC signs a fake certificate used in a man-in-the-middle attack, no browser will warn of any unusual activity unless the certificate is pinned.

After Google found these unauthorized certificates, both Google and Firefox revoked its trust in CNNIC a few days later, a development we at GreatFire.org have adovacting for since 2013. Apple and Microsoft on the other hand, did not revoke their trust in CNNIC, nor did they make any announcements regarding the security compromise.

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