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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Thu, Aug 10, 2023

1.4 million people used FreeBrowser to circumvent the Great Firewall of Turkmenistan

Since 2021, the authorities in Turkmenistan have taken exceptional measures to crack down on the use of circumvention tools. Citizens have been forced to swear on the Koran that they will not use a VPN. Circumvention tool websites have been systematically blocked. Arbitrary searches of mobile devices have also taken place and have even targeted school children and teachers.

The government has also blocked servers hosting VPNs which led to “near complete” internet shutdowns on several occasions in 2022. Current reports indicate that 66 hosting providers, 19 social networks and messaging platforms, and 10 leading content delivery networks (CDNs), are blocked in the country. The government presumably is unconcerned about the negative economic impact that such shutdowns can cause.

Fri, Mar 18, 2022

Well-intentioned decisions have just made it easier for Putin to control the Russian Internet

This article is in large part inspired by a recent article from Meduza (in Russian).

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Russian users have had problems accessing government websites and online banking clients. Browsers began to mark these sites as unsafe and drop the connection. The reason is the revocation of digital security certificates by foreign certificate authorities (either as a direct consequence of sanctions or as an independent, good will move); without them, browsers do not trust sites and “protect” their users from them.

However, these actions, caused - or at least triggered by - a desire to punish Russia for their gruesome actions in Ukraine, will have long-lasting consequences for Russian netizens.

Digital certificates are needed to confirm that the site the user wants to visit is not fraudulent. The certificates contain encryption keys to establish a secure connection between the site and the user. It is very easy to understand whether a page on the Internet is protected by a certificate. One need just look at the address bar of the browser. If the address begins with the https:// prefix, and there is a lock symbol next to the address, the page is protected. By clicking on this lock, you can see the status of the connection, the name of the Certification Authority (CA) that issued the certificate, and its validity period.

There are several dozen commercial and non-commercial organizations in the world that have digital root certificates, but 3/4 of all certificates are issued by only five of the largest companies. Four of them are registered in the USA and one is registered in Belgium.

Mon, Aug 03, 2020

Announcing the Release of GreatFire AppMaker

GreatFire (https://en.greatfire.org/), a China-focused censorship monitoring organization, is proud to announce that we have developed and released a new anti-censorship tool that will enable any blocked media outlet, blogger, human rights group, or civil society organization to evade censors and get their content onto the phones of millions of readers and supporters in China and other countries that censor the Internet.

GreatFire has built an Android mobile app creator, called “GreatFire AppMaker”, that can be used by organizations to unblock their content for users in China and other countries. Organizations can visit a website (https://appmaker.greatfire.org/) which will compile an app that is branded with the organization’s own logo and will feature their own, formerly blocked content. The app will also contain a special, censorship-circumventing web browser so that users can access the uncensored World Wide Web. The apps will use multiple strategies, including machine learning, to evade advanced censorship tactics employed by the Chinese authorities.  This project will work equally well in other countries that have China-like censorship restrictions. For both organizations and end users, the apps will be free, fast, and extremely easy to use.

This project was inspired by China-based GreatFire’s first-hand experience with our own FreeBrowser app (https://freebrowser.org/en) and desire to help small NGOs who may not have the in-house expertise to circumvent Chinese censorship. GreatFire’s anti-censorship tools have worked in China when others do not. FreeBrowser directs Chinese internet users to normally censored stories from the app’s start page (http://manyvoices.news/).

Fri, Jul 24, 2020

Apple, anticompetition, and censorship

On July 20, 2020, GreatFire wrote to all 13 members of the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law of the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary, requesting a thorough examination into Apple’s practice of censorship of its App Store, and an investigation into how the company collaborates with the Chinese authorities to maintain its unique position as one of the few foreign tech companies operating profitably in the Chinese digital market.  

This letter was sent a week before Apple CEO TIm Cook will be called for questioning in front of the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law. The CEOs of Amazon, Google and Facebook will also be questioned on July 27, as part of the Committee’s ongoing investigation into competition in the digital marketplace.

This hearing offers an opportunity to detail to the Subcommittee how Apple uses its closed operating ecosystem to not only abuse its market position but also to deprive certain users, most notably those in China, of their right to download and use apps related to privacy, secure communication, and censorship circumvention.

We hope that U.S. House representatives agree with our view that Apple should not be allowed to do elsewhere what would be considered as unacceptable in the U.S. Chinese citizens are not second class citizens. Private companies such as Apple compromise themselves and their self-proclaimed values of freedom and privacy when they collaborate with the Chinese government and its censors.

Mon, Jun 10, 2019

Apple Censoring Tibetan Information in China

Apple has a long history of censorship when it comes to information about Tibet. In 2009, it was revealed that several apps related to the Dalai Lama were not available in the China App Store. The developers of these apps were not notified that their apps were removed. When confronted with these instances of censorship, an Apple spokesperson simply said that the company “continues to comply with local laws”.

In December, 2017, at a conference in China, when asked about working with the Chinese authorities to censor the Apple App Store, Tim Cook proclaimed:

"Your choice is: do you participate, or do you stand on the sideline and yell at how things should be. And my own view very strongly is you show up and you participate, you get in the arena because nothing ever changes from the sideline."

In the ten years since Apple was first criticized for working with the Chinese authorities to silence already marginalized voices, what has changed? Apple continues to strictly follow the censorship orders of the Chinese authorities. When does Tim Cook expect that his company will help to bring about positive change in China?

Based on data generated from https://applecensorship.com, Apple has now censored 29 popular Tibetan mobile applications in the China App Store. Tibetan-themed apps dealing with news, religious study, tourism, and even games are being censored by Apple. A full list of the censored apps appear below.

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