Facebook: China return will depend on free speech, privacy

Facebook says it won’t return to China without considering how to square that with its commitments to free expression and the privacy of its users.

That would present a significant challenge, given the Chinese government’s current policies. The country’s vast internet censorship apparatus regularly blocks discussions on topics Beijing deems sensitive, including the Tiananmen Square massacre, Tibet and criticism of President Xi Jinping.

Facebook (FB), which has been banned in China since 2009, set out its approach to China in a written response to questions from US lawmakers. The company said it doesn’t know how Beijing would apply laws and regulations on content to its social network if it were allowed back into the country.

Its comments to the Senate Intelligence Committee come as US internet companies wrestle with how to do more business in China despite its heavy restrictions on freedom of expression.

Many of them have been blocked in China for years, including Twitter (TWTR), Facebook-owned Instagram and Google’s (GOOGL) search engine and email service.

That hasn’t stopped the companies from looking for more ways into the world’s second largest economy, seeking access to China’s lucrative market of 800 million internet users.

Google recently ended up on the defensive after its work on a censored search engine that could be launched in China was revealed in August by The Intercept.

Facebook, like Google, is a member of the Global Network Initiative, a digital alliance that follows the United Nations’ principles on business and human rights. Members’ compliance with the group’s goals is assessed every two years.

“In keeping with these commitments, rigorous human rights due diligence and careful consideration of free expression and privacy implications would constitute important components of any decision on entering China,” Facebook said.

“No decisions have been made around the conditions under which any possible future service might be offered in China,” the company added in its written response, which is dated October 26 and is now available on the Senate committee’s website.

Facebook’s latest comments on China were first reported by Bloomberg.

Rights activists unimpressed

Human rights activists are critical of Facebook and other internet companies’ eagerness to do business in China.

Human Rights Watch’s China director, Sophie Richardson, slammed Facebook’s assertion that it doesn’t know how the Chinese government would try to limit its operations if it were ever allowed back into the country.

“This is at best a profoundly disingenuous claim — the problems with censorship and surveillance are well known, as are the requirements for foreign firms to hand over all sorts of data and user information in an environment with no privacy rights,” she said.

Facebook announced earlier this year that it plans to open an innovation hub in China.

Its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has also made several efforts to build a relationship with the Chinese government through frequent visits and meetings with Chinese leaders, including President Xi Jinping.

And last year, Facebook dipped its toe into the Chinese market by quietly launching a photo and video sharing app called Colorful Balloons, without attaching the Facebook name to it.