Facebook is developing a software tool that suppresses users’ posts from appearing in the News Feed in designated geographic areas, a possible first step toward making the social network available in China, the New York Times reported. The tool has reportedly caused a controversy within Facebook, with “several employees” quitting in protest after working on it, according to the Times.
Facebook has been banned from China since 2009. Like many US technology companies, Facebook has long sought a way back in, seeing the country’s 1.3 billion residents as a source of enormous potential growth. Google built a version of its search engine that complied with China’s censorship guidelines but retreated from the country in 2010 after a series of seemingly state-sponsored cyberattacks. More recently, Uber exited the Chinese market with a quick sale of its business there to local rival Didi Chuxing.
As the Times notes, Facebook has taken down posts in other countries around the world, including Pakistan, Russia, and Turkey. But the tool now in development would prevent the posts from ever surfacing in the News Feed at all, according to the report. Facebook plans to outsource censorship duties to a third-party company, the report said.
The news comes in the midst of a national discussion about Facebook’s growing power as a distributor of news, its role in containing the spread of lies and hoaxes, and the possibility that its refusal to adopt editorial standards may have influenced the US presidential election. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said the company is building new tools to address fake news. “I want what we do to have a good impact on the world,” Zuckerberg said earlier this month. “I want people to have a diversity of information.”
But the existence of a “censorship tool” would muddy those waters by allowing censors to manipulate public opinion directly by essentially preventing users from posting articles that offended the state. Once it were introduced, Facebook would likely face pressure from other autocratic regimes to enable its use in their own countries. It is not impossible that the United States would be one of those countries — a fact that led some sources to come forward to the Times, reporter Mike Isaac said on Twitter.
The Times cautioned that the tool is one of several approaches Facebook has considered and that it might never be introduced. “We have long said that we are interested in China, and are spending time understanding and learning more about the country,” a spokeswoman told The Verge. “However, we have not made any decision on our approach to China. Our focus right now is on helping Chinese businesses and developers expand to new markets outside China by using our ad platform.”
Update, 7:14 p.m.: This story has been updated to include comment from Facebook.