Thursday, June 30, 2011

Different Obstacles in China for Google and Facebook

In my post "Facebook in China: A Chance to Connect and Understand" I highlighted that Facebook stands apart from Chinese social-networking sites in its ability to meet a key need & desire for many in China: connecting with the world.  I felt that Facebook could serve a positive role, both for China and the world, even given the fact that it would likely have to censor material on its site as required by the Chinese government.

So this clearly means that I think Google Search made a mistake in not keeping a censored version of its service in China, right?

Not necessarily.

On the issue of needing to self-censor Facebook and Google Search are different.

Last year, Google decided to redirect its search service in Mainland China to its servers in Hong Kong so that it would no longer be required to censor per the rules of the Chinese government (although it does presumably now "censor" according to the far less strict requirements in Hong Kong).  At that point China essentially took over the active duties of censoring the site.  China can block individual search requests or block individual pages of results depending on the content.  The experience one can having using Google Search in China can vary depending on the Great Firewall's apparent mood of the day, but essentially a user in China can go to Google Search, enter a "bad" search term, be "blocked", return to the search page (sometimes there may be a delay before the page is accessible), and then do something else.

In short, it is possible for China's Great Firewall to block "bad" things on Google Search without entirely stopping someone from using it.

However, if Facebook takes a stand to not censor material according to the rules of the Chinese government then there's no way for them to operate in a similar fashion.  Imagine if China reviews every incoming page from Facebook and only blocks pages that include "bad" material.  What if the news feed on a person's homepage includes a "bad" link that has been posted by a friend? China would block the page and that's it.  The person can't use Facebook at all.

As Facebook is currently designed there is likely now no way for it to be practically available in China unless Facebook itself censors material.  However, there may be hope that any censorship requirements for Facebook may not be as draconian as some may imagine.  A recent article by Loretta Chao in the Wall Street Journal that provides an overview of the competition between various Chinese social-networking sites (see here) touches on this:
"Chinese websites, including Sina, are required to police themselves to keep their government-issued operational licenses, a costly task involving dozens of employees who monitor the sites around the clock.

Although Sina is known for its heated discussions, at times over controversial issues such as local government corruption and soaring property prices, most talk on the site isn't political. When sensitive topics arise, the company can be creative in limiting conversation without cutting it off altogether—for example, by blocking searches of sensitive keywords but not stopping people from publishing them on their own microblogs."
Facebook may be able to allow similar "freedoms".  Although, it should be noted that as a foreign company they may be held to stricter standards than local companies for a variety of reasons.  As I've noted before regarding Google (see here), life is not always "fair" in China.

The only way for Facebook to take Google Search's route of not censoring themselves would be for Facebook to massively redesign its service.  Since China would still attempt to censor parts of the site, Facebook would have to ask itself whether it would be worth it.  For Google Search it was more simple.  Not censoring only meant less, not more, work for them since no fundamental changes to the design of the service were required (whether taking this route has led to more "interference" for Google's services in China is another issue).

This is why holding Google Search and Facebook to different expectations for self-censorship in China can be reasonable.  If China completely blocked Google Search then I would hope it would self-censor for reasons similar to those I've outlined for Facebook.  [Added note: Yes, I realize Google tried this once before and decided that it wasn't working for them.  Whether they should try again (if it's the only option) partly depends on the exact issues that previously caused them to stop self-censoring per China's rules.  My point is simply that a censored Google would be better for people in China than no Google.  Whether it is practical for Google to do so (China may not apply censorship rules consistently or fairly to Google) is another issue.]

The impact of the different situations faced by Google Search and Facebook relates to another issue Google is now facing: maintaining the operation of Google Maps in China.  As I previously discussed in my comparison of Google Maps and Baidu Map (see here), I think there are signs that Google Maps is strongly positioned in China and this may be why they're reportedly willing to form a joint venture with a Chinese company to meet new regulations.  In this case, there is presumably no option to offer Google Maps in China by redirecting traffic to servers in Hong Kong -- China would simply block the entire site.

There is also much talk about Google's new offerings in Google+.  See here for an in-depth overview by Steven Levy on and here for a piece by Ben Parr on Mashable.  Earlier today, I noted (see here) that at the time the entry portal to the service appeared to be blocked in China due to DNS issues that could be easily "fixed".  Later, the Shanghaiist reported (see here) that the service could be accessed in China but was very slow.  Regardless, Google+ will likely face it's own particular challenges if it wants to operate in China.

I feel that Facebook, Google, and other companies who can help Chinese people connect with the world all should do their best to have a presence in China.  They can all offer something special for people in China, each in their own way.  Depending on their services they may have to make different sacrifices to do so, but in many cases they will be worth it for the companies, their customers, and their users.

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