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Will Facebook Friend China?

Mark Zuckerberg's meeting this week in Beijing with Baidu CEO Robin Li set off another round of speculation that the social-media giant may be coming to the Middle Kingdom.

Getty Images
Getty Images

On Dec. 20, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg — who was recently named Time‘s 2010 "Person of the Year" — stopped by the Beijing offices of Baidu, China’s leading web-search company, to chat with co-founder Robin Li. The two men, both youthful, energetic, self-made billionaires, have much in common. In addition to Silicon Valley ties (after leaving Harvard University, the now 26-year-old Zuckerberg took his company to the Valley; and the 42-year-old Li studied in the United States and worked in the Valley before moving back to Beijing), they share an affection for no-frills attire (Li’s bright-colored polo shirts and windbreakers are a notch fancier than Zuckerberg’s storied brown hoodies), lofty spots on their country’s respective most-wealthy lists (Li ranked second on Forbes‘s 2010 "China Rich List" and Zuckerberg was 35th on the American version), and planetary ambitions.

Whether or not any formal partnership was discussed — Baidu spokesperson Kaiser Kuo declined to share details of the meeting with Bloomberg News — one thing is certain: If Zuckerberg is seriously considering entering the Chinese market, which means learning to play by Beijing’s rules, there is no better guide than Li.

Facebook is officially blocked in China, alongside other foreign-owned social-networking sites, including Twitter. That means that Facebook’s 550 million users do not include any (or very few) of China’s 420 million-and-counting Internet users. When a Facebook employee recently mapped social networks among the site’s global users, China was rendered as an ominously dark space, among the last unconquered frontiers. But over the past year, there have been an increasing trickle of news stories that Facebook is eyeing the Middle Kingdom.

In October, Zuckerberg told an Internet forum at Stanford University that Facebook must "figure out the right partnerships we would need to succeed in China on our terms…. China has values that are somewhat different from the U.S…. I would spend a lot of time studying it."

Entering China would first mean bowing to Beijing’s political requirements. (This spring, Google decided it was no longer willing to play ball, and so withdrew its search operations from mainland China.) No outsider can predict what Facebook’s principled growth calculus might be, but it is possible to sketch out what Zuckerberg would have to stomach if China is indeed among his next targets.

Operating an Internet search or social-network company within mainland China requires blocking users’ access to prohibited content originating outside China (e.g., information about the Dalai Lama); this is what’s commonly known as the "Great Firewall." But it’s only the first level of censorship. The second level involves collecting information about users and search patterns. The particular categories of information are dictated by the Chinese government, and all such information is subject to police inspection upon request. In other words, Internet companies in China must not only tolerate, but become active participants in, Beijing’s censorship policies if they wish to remain in business.

Since launching Baidu in 2000, Li has accepted China’s rules. As he told Bloomberg Television in August, "We have to spend a lot of resources to make sure our content and services abide by Chinese law." Li’s reasoning is that it’s better to toe the line than risk being shut down. For a company based in China, he sees just one option.

And Facebook? Restricting users’ access to "sensitive" links would be a mammoth technical challenge. But more worrying, say Internet experts, is the second category of censorship: making available Chinese users’ information to authorities.

In the course of its fast-paced global expansion — 70 percent of Facebook users are now outside the United States — Facebook has often drawn criticism for failing to recognize the consequences of entering new markets with political circumstances very different from those in the United States. Jillian York, project coordinator at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, this year authored a report, "Policing Content in the Quasi-Public Sphere," that spotlights the ways that social-networking services, including Facebook, have been used by authoritarian regimes to track down political activists and identify other users in their online networks. (One example is the case of a 26-year-old Moroccan IT engineer who was  imprisoned for six weeks after creating a Facebook page mocking the king; questions as to how his personal information was obtained by the authorities remain unresolved.)

One of York’s main findings is that Facebook in the past has rushed into new markets without fully understanding local circumstances, particularly how users might be put at risk. Her report pointed out that while Facebook is available today in more than 70 languages, its terms of service — which describe what happens to personal information users provide — were initially available in only five languages, all of them European. As York told me: "How can a user consent when he or she can’t read the terms?" (The company has since told her it is working on further translations, though legal implications make the process slower than hoped.)

Columbia University law professor and author of The Master Switch Tim Wu framed the question like this in a article: "[W]hat will Facebook do when faced with such predicaments in trying to enter, or stay in, tricky overseas markets?… It’s one thing giving Facebook access to your private information. It’s something else entirely if governments then obtain access, too." For all the recent focus on privacy concerns within the United States, such questions carry potentially much higher stakes elsewhere. "How Facebook reacts to such scrutiny will give us a sense of the soul of this company," Wu writes, "more so than any recent movie ever could."

Perhaps the aim of Zuckerberg’s meeting with Baidu’s Li this week was to probe deeper. Few understand the paradoxes of the Chinese Internet better than Li — or can better translate between the culture and expectations of Silicon Valley and those of Beijing. Li is also the author of the 1998 book, Business War in Silicon Valley, an account in Mandarin for Chinese entrepreneurs wanting to decipher Palo Alto and Menlo Park.

While in China, Zuckerberg also visited the offices of web portal and cell carrier China Mobile. But neither of those visits stirred nearly the same degree of speculation — complete with grainy digital photos posted on myriad Chinese websites — as Zuckerberg’s sit-down with Li.

Most of the chatter has revolved around the question of what Li might teach Zuckerberg — and whether, and how soon, Facebook could be coming to China. But it’s also worth asking what know-how Zuckerberg might impart to Li. "I think that five to 10 years down the road," the Baidu founder told Wall Street Journal in August, "we’ll have a very meaningful part of our revenue come from international expansion."

In other words, another common trait the two trailblazing founders share is the ambition of growing their businesses beyond their home countries and the high-stakes endeavor of weighing what rules to accept. In addition to wondering how Facebook might fare in China, it’s not too soon to start asking what impact a China-based search engine will have operating outside the Great Firewall, for Chinese and global netizens alike.

Christina Larson is an award-winning science and technology journalist based in Beijing. Twitter: @larsonchristina

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