NEW YORK — Facebook has built an internal tool for the Chinese market that would censor posts before they appear, the New York Times reported late Tuesday.
The tool, which was tested internally but not commercially released, was intended to help Facebook get into China by complying with Chinese Internet censorship laws, the paper reported, citing unnamed current and former employees.
On Tuesday, the company did not directly address questions as to whether it built the tool. “We have long said that we are interested in China, and are spending time understanding and learning more about the country,” Facebook spokeswoman Debbie Frost said in a statement.
“However, we have not made any decision on our approach to China. Our focus right now is on helping Chinese businesses and developers expand to new markets outside China by using our ad platform.”
Facebook is one of several U.S. companies looking for a way into China’s vast but tightly regulated Internet market. There are more than twice as many people online in China as there are residents of the United States, but their online activities are controlled by an extensive system of censorship known as the Great Firewall.
Carmen Chang, a longtime China expert and partner at the venture capital firm New Enterprise Associates said that the censoring tool was not surprising and that it could help Facebook make headway there. “The Chinese market is so large and so critical to so many companies that they are all seeking ways to get in and are willing to comply” with censorship, she said. “Every little bit helps them in terms of their willingness to comply, but the big reasons China is blocking Facebook remain.”
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has made a huge push to be in the good graces of Chinese authorities over the past two years. He has learned rudimentary Chinese and tried to forge a relationship with President Xi Jinping.
When China’s former Internet czar, Lu Wei, toured Facebook’s headquarters in 2014, Zuckerberg left a copy of Xi’s book “The Governance of China” on a desk in plain view of the cameras.
Zuckerberg has also made repeated trips to China, becoming one of the most well-known executives to frequently visit the country. In March, he took a now-famous “smog jog” through Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, braving thick, gray smog for an apparent photo op.
So far, that has earned him little by way of leeway. Facebook has been blocked in China since 2009. It runs its advertising businesses, which solicit ads from Chinese companies to run on Facebook, from Hong Kong.
Facebook is nowhere close to doing business in China, said a person who is familiar with the company’s dealings there but who was not authorized to speak about the subject.
Google’s search engine and Twitter are blocked in China. Google pulled out of China in 2010. Over the previous four years, the search giant had sparked criticism that it offered a censored version of its product in China. The company pulled out only after Gmail accounts of Chinese activists were hacked.
U.S. technology companies that operate in China, including LinkedIn and Evernote, have made changes to their services to comply with censorship regulations.
Tech companies, including Google, Facebook and Twitter, comply with local censorship laws and block content in many other countries. Each year, the companies publish annual transparency reports in which they enumerate the requests they receive from foreign governments to take down content.
Rauhala reported from Beijing.
Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world
Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news