Facebook 'develops censorship tool to get into China'

SAN FRANCISCO • Facebook has quietly developed software to suppress posts from appearing in people's news feeds in specific geographic areas as part of its efforts to get into China, according to three current and former Facebook employees.

The feature was created to help Facebook in a market where the social network has been blocked, the people said on condition of anonymity because the tool is confidential.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg had supported and defended the effort, they added.

Facebook did not intend to suppress the posts itself, the people said. Instead, it would offer the software to enable a third party - in this case, most likely a partner Chinese company - to monitor popular stories and topics as users share them across the social network. Facebook's partner would have full control on deciding whether those posts should show up in users' feeds.

The current and former Facebook employees said the software was one of many ideas that the company had discussed in respect to entering China.

The feature had so far been unused, and there was no indication that Facebook had offered it to the authorities in China, they said.

But the project illustrates the extent to which Facebook may be willing to compromise one of its core mission statements - "To make the world more open and connected" - to gain access to a market of 1.4 billion people in China.

The suppression software has been contentious within Facebook. Several employees who were working on the project have left Facebook after expressing misgivings about it, according to the current and former employees.

So many employees asked about the project and its ambitions on an internal forum that, in July, it became a topic at one of Facebook's weekly Friday afternoon sessions.

Mr Zuckerberg told the gathering that Facebook's China plans were nascent, but he also struck a pragmatic tone about the future, according to employees who attended the session.

"It's better for Facebook to be a part of enabling conversation, even if it's not yet the full conversation," Mr Zuckerberg said, according to employees.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 24, 2016, with the headline 'Facebook 'develops censorship tool to get into China''. Print Edition | Subscribe