Do no evil. Make the world more open and connected. These have been Google and Facebook’s respective tag lines or mantras, if you will; however their moral and ethical aspirations bump into an uncomfortable and often contradictory foe: the market.
While Google has in recent years walked away from “do no evil,” which led to regular charges of hypocrisy, Facebook still actively promotes itself as an agent of positive change around the world. That image was dramatically upended by numerous reports that unchecked, fake news on Facebook may have helped swing the election to Donald Trump.
Now the New York Times is reporting that Facebook has “quietly developed a censorship tool” to help the site regain access to China, the world’s largest and most populous internet market. According to the report, the tool would “suppress posts from appearing in people’s news feeds in specific geographic areas.” It also points out that in other countries, such as Russia and Pakistan, Facebook cooperates with government censorship efforts (as do other US companies).
The Facebook tool would not itself prevent people from posting; however it would enable third parties (i.e., the Chinese government) to monitor topics or posts as they started trending and enable them to be suppressed. Facebook was banned in China in 2009 following ethnic riots in the province of Xinjiang. The government blocked access to Facebook (and Twitter) following the riots and the company has not been able to operate in the country since.
The Chinese government sees the internet as a tool of social control and propaganda. Uncensored internet access, it fears, could inflame social and political unrest. Facebook sees a massive internet market of nearly 700 million potential users. And, as a public company, Facebook faces investor pressure to keep growing. China is the most logical place to acquire “the next billion users.”
On its third quarter earnings call, Facebook CFO David M. Wehner said that “ad load” and revenue growth would slow next year, concerning institutional investors. And despite CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s desire to insulate Facebook from the conventional market pressures of being a public company that’s what it is.
A related Reuters report quotes a Facebook spokesperson saying that the company hasn’t made any decision “on our approach to China.” Indeed, the content-suppression tool may never be introduced. But it’s an interesting example of the company’s internal struggle to reconcile the reality of being a public company with the desire to not fundamentally compromise its values and mission.
However, that may ultimately be impossible.