Potential Facebook Venture Into China?

Facebook has been in talks with Chinese search engine Baidu to set up a social networking site in China, where the social networking giant has been banned since 2009.

Reports have not yet been confirmed, but an agreement would allow Facebook to launch a China-specific social networking website through Baidu. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is thought to have been interested in the Chinese market for quite some time, and an agreement would allow Facebook to tap into China’s 400 million Internet users.

Zuckerberg travelled to China to visit Baidu’s headquarters in December 2010, and in February of this year Baidu executives visited Facebook’s headquarters in Palo Alto, California, making many believe that a deal will be announced in the near future.

The potential partnership brings up several impending problems, namely concerns over privacy and censorship. Google suspended its Chinese operations after deciding it would not allow its search engine results to be censored, but it does not seem Facebook is allowing those concerns overshadow its vision for China. Facebook lobbyist Adam Conner told the Wall Street Journal, “Maybe we will block content in some countries, but not others. We are occasionally held in uncomfortable positions because now we're allowing too much, maybe, free speech in countries that haven't experienced it before."

This comes after Facebook was rebuked last spring for not attending a “global internet freedom” hearing on Capitol Hill and refusing to join the Global Network Initiative, a group of human rights groups and IT companies that agree to common principles of conduct in nations that restrict free speech. Moving ahead with its Chinese ambitions and bowing down to Chinese censorship laws could be a potentially damaging move and tarnish Facebook’s image, according to top-ranking politicians.

Facebook has also come under fire for its privacy policies. Most recently, it was reproached for an application that allowed external websites to gain user information such as phone numbers and addresses with their permission. Chinese laws require internet services to hand over user data to authorities, a law that discouraged Google from continuing its operations. Bill Bishop, a Beijing-based digital media entrepreneur, says, “It is inevitable that to comply with Chinese laws they or their partner are going to have to turn over data. The day that happens they should expect a call from Congress."

Still, Facebook seems to be pressing ahead despite the risk of scrutiny, brand damage, and intense competition and may well be the company to finally grab hold of China’s massive internet-savvy market.