Facebook Takes New Tack by Approving Social App in China

Facebook has made several efforts over the years to encourage China to lift the 2009 block against its social platform and many of its apps. In May, the company approved a photo-sharing app called Colorful Balloons that doesn’t have the Facebook name attached but is similar in look, function and feel to Facebook’s Moments app. According to an unnamed source, a local Chinese company debuted the app without any hint of a Facebook affiliation. China imposes strict censorship on the Internet, including on news websites and apps.

According to The New York Times, “the stealthy and anonymous release of an app by a major foreign technology company in China is unprecedented,” and “shows the desperation — and frustration — of global tech companies as they try to break into the world’s largest online market” as well as “the lengths they are willing to go, and their increasing acceptance of the idea that standards for operating in China are different from elsewhere.”

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The incentive to operate in China is its 700 million Internet users, who spend $750 billion per year online. Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg “has often asked where its next billion users will come from.”

NYT notes that, “it is unclear whether China’s various Internet regulators were aware of the app’s existence,” which was released by Beijing-based Youge Internet Technology, and that, “the under-the-table approach could cause Facebook new difficulties with a Chinese government that has maintained strict oversight and control over foreign tech companies.”

“It’s not a mere business thing,” said Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business professor Teng Bingsheng. “It’s politics.” NYT faxed a request for comment to the Cyberspace Administration of China, but did not get a response.

Up until now, Facebook’s overtures to China have been high profile, with Zuckerberg, who is learning Mandarin, visiting the country on several occasions and becoming “something of a celebrity there.” Colorful Balloons “links users through China’s biggest social network, WeChat,” and is “designed to collate photos from a smartphone’s photo albums and then share them … with the use of a QR code, a sort of bar code that is widely used by WeChat and other apps in the country.”

“The secretive release of Colorful Balloons could also undermine trust between the company and the Chinese government,” adds NYT, which notes it reported last year that, “Facebook had also quietly been at work on a censorship tool that could be used on a version of the social network in a place like China, where the government demands control over what is shared.”