Facebook has 750 million users worldwide, and it hasn’t even penetrated the Chinese market yet. That leaves plenty of room to grow. Tim Karr, Campaign Director for Free Press, the nation’s largest media reform group, hopes that the company’s efforts to break through the bamboo curtain may actually tilt the scales in favor of its nascent rival Google+, or better yet, some third social networking option that isn’t fueled purely from selling info to advertisers.
In parallel editorials that appeared in both the Daily Kos and the Huffington Post, Karr cites Christopher Luna, a masters student at the Harvard Divinity Schoolm who argues that “Google has made the correct choice in its difficult decision between compromising with a totalitarian government … and making what could be a huge profit in China.”
In contrast, Facebook and its new partner Microsoft (as evidenced by yesterday’s Skype announcement) are “much more willing to comply with Chinese gatekeepers in order to gain access to the nation’s vast marketplace of users,” Karr says.
Luna asks “whether a corporation can exist and thrive while standing by principles that support the value of human being.”
Social media like Facebook and Twitter got a big boost this year for the way that they were used to promote popular uprisings against totalitarian regimes throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Asia. Yet these countries have vast markets. Egypt has 80 million people, Vietnam (which also saw social media-sponsored protests) has 90 million, and then there is China, historically the most populous country in the world. Yet Facebook has already hinted that it would comply with Chinese demands in exchange for access to that market, and its buddy Microsoft has a history of collaboration with Baidu, China’s censored search engine.
Karr points out that both Google and Microsoft share the same ultimate goal: collecting information about users, which can then be sold to advertisers. But while Google insists that information of all kinds should be accessible to anyone, Facebook is willing to compromise on that and has, by censoring everything from a marijuana legalization campaign to information about breastfeeding—and that was right here in the U.S. of A.
Facebook’s new partner Skype has already made more egregious compromises. According to the Wall Street Journal, Skype users in China are already “subject to censorship. To enter the Chinese market in 2004, Skype agreed to a unique arrangement in which a special version of its software there filters users’ text chats and blocks politically sensitive keywords.”
Luna ends his post by favoring Google’s openness. He says that he would “like to see Google win this war, and I know whose side I’m on here. I kind of think that leaving Facebook is one way that we can participate in this war.”
Karr would also like to see users “vote with their wallets (and clicks) for the company that takes the high road.” He adds, however, that even Google may “compromise their products too much” with its mercenary approach to data collection for advertising.
On the other hand, in its showdown with China, Google has already proved that it is capable of balancing profit with principles. Facebook has yet to do so, which is why Google+ may yet win this war.