Facebook sneaks into China's online market

Desperate to break into the Chinese market, Facebook has discreetly developed and rolled out a photo-sharing app called "Colorful Balloons." The app has no Facebook branding and was released through a local Chinese firm.

Facebook has been banned in China since 2009, although that doesn't appear to have stopped the tech giant from seeking out new ways to enter to enter the world's largest online market.

On Friday, The New York Times newspaper reported that Facebook had taken the unusual step of secretly developing a photo-sharing application and releasing it through a local Chinese company called Youge Internet.

Read more: Facebook ramps up anti-hate campaign in Germany

The app, called "Colorful Balloons," shows no signs of any affiliation with Facebook, bar the fact that it has similar features to the social network's Moments application.

Society | 01.08.2017
Digital World

Free speech or illegal content?

Whether hate speech, propaganda or activism, governments across the globe have upped efforts to curb content deemed illegal from circulating on social networks. From drawn-out court cases to blanket bans, DW examines how some countries try to stop the circulation of illicit content while others attempt to regulate social media.

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Social media law

After a public debate in Germany, a new law on social media came into effect in October. The legislation imposes heavy fines on social media companies, such as Facebook, for failing to take down posts containing hate speech. Facebook and other social media companies have complained about the law, saying that harsh rules might lead to unnecessary censorship.

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Right to be forgotten

In 2014, the European Court of Justice ruled that European citizens had the right to request search engines, such Google and Bing, remove "inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive" search results linked to their name. Although Google has complied with the ruling, it has done so reluctantly, warning that it could make the internet as "free as the world's least free place."

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Blanket ban

In May 2017, Ukraine imposed sanctions on Russian social media platforms and web services. The blanket ban affected millions of Ukrainian citizens, many of whom were anxious about their data. The move prompted young Ukrainians to protest on the streets, calling for the government to reinstate access to platforms that included VKontakte (VK), Russia's largest social network.

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Safe Harbor

In 2015, the European Court of Justice ruled that Safe Harbor, a 15-year-old pact between the US and EU that allowed the transfer of personal data without prior approval, was effectively invalid. Austrian law student Max Schrems launched the legal proceedings against Facebook in response to revelations made by former US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, Edward Snowden.

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In China, the use of social media is highly regulated by the government. Beijing has effectively blocked access to thousands of websites and platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. Instead, China offers its citizens access to local social media platforms, such as Weibo and WeChat, which boast hundreds of millions of monthly users.

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Twitter bans Russia-linked accounts

Many politicians and media outlets blame Russia's influence for Donald Trump's election victory in 2016. Moscow reportedly used Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Instagram to shape public opinion on key issues. In October 2017, Twitter suspended over 2,750 accounts due to alleged Russian propaganda. The platform also banned ads from RT (formerly Russia Today) and the Sputnik news agency.

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Facebook announces propaganda-linked tool

With social media under pressure for allowing alleged Russian meddling, Facebook announced a new project to combat such efforts in November 2017. The upcoming page will give users a chance to check if they "liked" or followed an alleged propaganda account on Facebook or Instagram. Meanwhile, Facebook has come under fire for not protecting user data in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

The app was released in China earlier this year, without any prominent company or name associated with it.

"We have long said that we are interested in China, and are spending time understanding and learning more about the country in different ways," a representative for Facebook said in a statement.

"Our focus right now is on helping Chinese businesses and developers expand to new markets outside China by using our ad platform."

The statement could indicate that, rather than expecting the app to see a flurry of people sign up, Facebook instead intended to use it to learn how Chinese users interact and share content with one another.

China's grip on the internet

Facebook is just one of many major Silicon Valley stars forbidden from operating in China's tightly controlled online space. Google, YouTube and Instagram have all been locked out by China's so-called "Great Firewall."

Nevertheless, "Colorful Balloons" represents the lengths Facebook is willing to go for a chance of cracking China's booming online space. The country boasts some 700 million internet users, who collectively spend around $750 billion online, albeit almost exclusively using local apps.

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Read more: Hello, Big Brother: How China controls its citizens through social media

Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has even made some very personal efforts to court high-ranking support in the country, making a number high profile trips and meeting senior with lawmakers, including President Xi Jinping.

However,  the release of "Colorful Balloons" could have a damaging impact on Facebooks' stock in China. Beijing enjoys its grip on and oversight over foreign technology companies operating in the country. The Chinese government could view Facebook's decision to go behind its back as having undermined its trust.

Meanwhile, Facebook's sneaky app will likely be pulled from China's app store altogether, while Zuckerberg may need to relaunch his charm offensive from the ground up once again.

dm/sms (AFP, New York Times)