Mark Zuckerberg has confirmed that Facebook has given up hope of bringing its platform to China; marking the end of a lengthy endeavour to break into the country’s massive market.
Speaking at Georgetown University in Washington DC, the Facebook CEO said the company had tried repeatedly to come to an agreement with the Chinese regime over issues such as censorship and personal data usage.
Zuckerberg noted that the social media firm and Chinese authorities “could never come to an agreement on what it would take for us to operate there” – underlining the extensive efforts the company took to break into China.
In a blog post earlier this year, Zuckerberg outlined the company’s plans for operating in countries with questionable privacy and civil rights records. A core focus of his new privacy-focused vision for Facebook would involve the firm not storing “sensitive” data in countries with “weak records” in regards to human rights.
This appears to have been a key stumbling block for both Chinese authorities and the social media giant. In China, retention and storage of personal information is a legal requirement.
Having admitted defeat in this regard, the Facebook CEO subsequently hit out at China, suggesting that western technology companies should push back against Chinese efforts to ‘control’ and ‘define’ the internet. Freedom of speech, an issue in which Facebook has become a recurring figure, was also in the spotlight.
“China is building its own internet, focused on very different values,” he said. “And now it’s exporting their vision of the internet to other countries.”
Until recently the internet, in almost every country outside of China, has been defined by American platforms with strong free expression values. But there is no guarantee that these values will win out,” Zuckerberg added.
“I wanted our services in China because I believe in connecting the whole world. I thought maybe we could help create a more open society – and this is one that I worked hard on for a long time.”
Facebook, along with Twitter, was originally barred from operating in China in 2009. Both social media firms were, in part, blamed for causing unrest in the western Xinjiang region, home to the Uyghur ethnic minority group.
Riots in the region led to more than 197 deaths and in excess of 1,500 arrests. The Chinese government is accused of carrying out widespread civil riots violations and mass-incarcerations in the Xinjiang region, and human rights groups have repeatedly voiced concerns over the conduct of Chinese authorities.
Free expression, on Facebook’s terms
During his speech, Zuckerberg staunchly defended the company’s political advertising policies and appears to have positioned the site as the cornerstone of modern ‘free expression’. The firm has been subject to intense scrutiny the United States following its decision to let politicians circulate purposefully misleading ads.
Technology companies, he suggested, should follow Facebook’s lead and avoid restrictions to political advertising on the grounds that they could restrict grassroots movements and favour larger political movements instead.
“We don’t fact-check political ads. We don’t do this to help politicians, but because we think people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying,” he explained.
“I know many people disagree, but I don’t think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy. And we’re not an outlier here. The other major internet platforms and the vast majority of media also run these same ads.”
Facebook has found itself at loggerheads with Elizabeth Warren, one of the frontrunners for the Democratic presidential nomination, over the issue of misinformation and political advertising.
Warren hit out at the firm over its decision to allow President Trump to run an advertising campaign containing false information about former Vice President Joe Biden. In an effort to highlight the flaws in Facebook’s advertising practices, Warren ran her own Facebook ads falsely claiming that Zuckerberg had endorsed President Trump.