According to Chinese news reports, Facebook is in talks with Chinese search giant Baidu to create a social network in China. Although both sides have declined to comment, the idea is hardly far-fetched. Facebook is clearly intent on global expansion; founder Mark Zuckerberg has had meetings with a number of players in the country; and Baidu — which is effectively the Google (s goog) of China — carries a substantial amount of weight in that country, and could presumably smooth the way for the social network. But will Facebook be able to live with the kinds of things it will be required to do in order to stay on the good side of China’s totalitarian government?
Some are questioning the social network’s desire to get involved in China now, during what Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Global Voices Online calls “one of the worst online crackdown periods in years.” Among other things, the government just detained Ai Weiwei, one of the country’s most prominent artists and an outspoken critic of the Chinese authorities. Eight human-rights lawyers were arrested in mid-February and have not been heard from since, according to the New York Times (s nyt), and dozens of writers, bloggers and other critics have been threatened with arrest.
What will Facebook do when the Chinese government comes to the site it’s a partner in (the exact structure of the service is unclear) and asks for the account information of China’s equivalent to Wael Ghonim — the man who started the Facebook page that many credited with sparking, or at least helping to fuel, the recent uprisings in Egypt? The social networking giant blocked attempts by the Tunisian government to hack its site when a revolution was occurring in that country earlier this year, but how will it respond to official requests for information from the Chinese authorities?
The company has made it clear that it stands behind its “real names” policy, despite the difficulties that creates for dissidents in countries like Egypt. Unfortunately for Chinese users, this could make Facebook — or any network in which it plays a part — a critical weapon in the Chinese government’s routine attempts to track and target dissidents. Forming a partnership with Baidu may be an attempt to distance the Chinese effort from Facebook’s regular business, but it is still going to be held responsible by many for whatever happens to that Chinese network.
Google (s goog) knows all about the cat-and-mouse game companies have to play with China when it comes to maintaining a relationship with the country’s totalitarian government. In 2009, the web giant announced it would no longer censor its search results in the country as a result of suspected hacking of email accounts that appeared to be tied to the government. Searches were automatically redirected to the company’s Hong Kong website for a time, but the Chinese government complained about this, and it looked as though Google’s license to operate in the country might not be renewed.
In the end, the Chinese government renewed Google’s license, but the search company had to modify its website so it wouldn’t redirect people automatically to the Hong Kong site. Some observers believed Google should have taken a stand on principle and removed itself from China entirely — and there were reports that co-founder Sergey Brin favored this approach, in part because of his family’s struggles with a totalitarian government in the former Soviet Union — but Google chose to remain.
Like Yahoo (s yhoo) and Microsoft (s msft) — both of whom block certain searches and are required to provide whatever information the Chinese government requests of them, including details about suspected dissidents the authorities are trying to track down — Google couldn’t bring itself to leave China altogether, because the potential market in that country is just so vast. Even though it comes second to local search giant Baidu, there is still more than enough business to make the country a huge factor in Google’s global expansion.
Facebook undoubtedly sees the same kinds of opportunities, and hooking up with the country’s largest search engine virtually ensures that whatever comes out of the partnership has a good chance of becoming a major player. Whether the U.S.-based social network can live with the ethical compromises involved remains to be seen.