Facebook is reportedly working on a software that will sift the content hostile to the interests of the Chinese government in order to gain entry in the world’s largest base of active telecom and internet users. Facebook was blocked by China in 2009 for allegedly contributing to Xinxiang’s race riots.
China has around 700 million digital population, largest in the world – and Chinese internet companies like WeChat, Weibo and Baidu have grown manifold, aided by a protectionist Chinese government and by the absence of global internet giants like Google, Facebook and Twitter.
And it seems Mark Zuckerberg wants a share of that digital population to fuel his organization’s further growth even if it comes at the cost of the founding principle of Facebook.
Mark Zuckerberg had written about information flow on Facebook in an open letter on September 8, 2006 that is available on Facebook. The open letter was basically about how apologetic Mark Zuckerberg felt after Facebook had a messy launch of its News Feed. The open letter was basically about the ‘free flow of information the Internet’.
Zuckerberg writes in the initial lines of his open letter, “When I made Facebook two years ago my goal was to help people understand what was going on in their world a little better. I wanted to create an environment where people could share whatever information they wanted, but also have control over whom they shared that information with. I think a lot of the success we’ve seen is because of these basic principles.”
Zuckerberg further writes in the letter about creating a group ‘Free Flow of Information on the Internet’ because this is what he believes in as he says. The open letter has hyperlinked text to redirect to the group but when the link is clicked it says “sorry, this content isn’t available right now.”
From that motto of ‘free flow of information on the internet’, Facebook is now reportedly developing tailored tools to serve propaganda of the autocratic regimes like China.
Facebook was founded in 2004. In 2006, it was still a small business with valuation around $500 million. But 10 years later, its market cap is now over $350 billion – in ivy league with companies like Apple, Microsoft, Google and Exxon. Industry analysts say Facebook’s profit has the potential to grow 32% annually for some next years and its market cap may touch $1 trillion. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is already among the wealthiest people in the world and that if it happens so it will make him the richest person on the planet.
That makes Facebook a pure business interest for Mark Zuckerberg and with that comes the pressure growth. And he is already facing the heat. The pressure to grow its market has effectively put a break on Mark Zuckerberg’s goal of ‘free flow of information on the internet’. The ‘unavailability’ of the group Mark writes about in his open letter can be seen as a testimony to that. There has been a flurry of cases around the world on how Facebook uses the data or it violates personal privacy norms. It has unsuccessfully tried introducing controversial platforms like Free Basics in India, essentially a marketing tie-up with some companies that provides free basic internet to the users but with selected content.
To maintain its hold as the primary and most preferred social networking site, Facebook has tried to increase its reach, acquiring new platforms like WhatsApp and Instagram and focusing on markets with enormous potential like China and India. Facebook’s mammoth acquisition of WhatsApp for $19 billion in 2014 was seen as a desperate attempt to maintain that lead.
Facebook is slowing down in its main market – America and Canada – that it counts as one – and it needs to expand. China and India are the world’s biggest telecom markets in terms active users. As Facebook India MD Umang Bedi puts it, and as Mark Zuckerberg says, India is the most critical and strategic market for Facebook. But there is a big catch. India may a be a future market for Facebook but its contribution in Facebook’s overall revenue at the moment is negligible. Facebook earns Rs. 630 per user in the US whereas in India, it is still less than Rs. 9 while the global average is around Rs. 270. That is a huge gap to fill.
Also, Facebook has set a norm for itself that how many ads it can show in its news feed and it will hit the threshold in 2017. So, it needs many more users and markets outside the US to fuel its miraculous growth story. And China can be the solution Zuckerberg will have in mind.
And he is trying to woo China like anything. He has had multiple visits to China. Though Facebook is blocked in China, he opened his sales office there in 2014. He has learned Mandarin. Like Narendra Modi, he has also met with the Chinese President Xi Jinping and has given those events ample publicity. Narendra Modi even visited Facebook headquarters during his US visit in September 2015 but that luck has not smiled on Facebook when it comes to Xi Jinping.