Here is why Internet giants must weigh access to the Chinese market against China’s oppressive censorship scheme

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Published: December 20, 2017 4:00:12 AM

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been pushing for a chance to re-enter ever since—a 2016 New York Times report talked about Facebook working on a tool to prevent posts from showing up in a particular geographic region.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been pushing for a chance to re-enter ever since—a 2016 New York Times report talked about Facebook working on a tool to prevent posts from showing up in a particular geographic region. (Reuters)

The Great Firewall of China—the clever moniker given to the oppressive Chinese internet censorship regime—had caused Google to rebel in 2010. It was, of course, soon forced to quit the largest single internet market, though, as Bloomberg columnist Adam Minter argues in these pages today, it didn’t really leave since its mobile OS, Android, remains the most popular OS in the country. On the other hand, Facebook, the other famous internet giant—and there are quite a few—banned in China, was collateral damage. Control-obsessed Chinese authorities closed the door on the social media giant after the 2009 ethnic minority riots. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been pushing for a chance to re-enter ever since—a 2016 New York Times report talked about Facebook working on a tool to prevent posts from showing up in a particular geographic region. Such a feature would undoubtedly make Facebook seem more acceptable to China.

The company, last year, told Mashable, “We have long said that we are interested in China … However, we have not made any decision on our approach to China.” Google, too, has been trying to edge itself back in—it recently opened a AI research centre. While Minter argues, China’s focus on homegrown AI will stymie Google’s latest efforts,  Qi Xiaoxia, director general of the Bureau of International Cooperation at the Cyberspace Administration of China, has said internet companies looking to come to China must abide by the country’s rigid censorship laws and practices. So, if a Google or Facebook go to China, they must play by the Firewall’s rules. Only, that goes beyond just censorship. It could mean turning a blind eye to attempts by Chinese state and non-state actors to gather information on citizens—something Google refused do in 2010 after it discovered attempts to hack into the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists and pro-democracy voices. Returning to China, on China’s terms, would set the wrong precedent on internet companies’ role in protecting free speech.  And given China’s homegrown competitors for both Google and Facebook already enjoy market dominance, the returns may be both little and earned at too great a cost.

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