Do Facebook whistleblower revelations mean China is right to keep it out?

Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies at a House Financial Services Committee hearing in Washington, US, on Oct 23, 2019.
PHOTO: Reuters

Facebook's recent service outage and allegations by a whistle-blower that the US social media giant puts "astronomical profits before people" have seen some tech commentators praise Beijing's tighter grip on the internet, including its ban on many foreign online services and steps to restrict algorithms.

The Chinese government has not made any public comment on this week's outage at Facebook, which resulted in its vast family of apps including WhatsApp and Instagram, grinding to a halt for hours.

China was largely unscathed as these apps are blocked by the country's Great Firewall, but the incident and the whistleblower revelations have reignited debate over the government's role in regulating the online world.

"China's new laws reining in algorithms are smarter than many first thought, while a Facebook whistle-blower shows why we need them," said Richard Turrin, a Shanghai-based consultant and tech author, in a post on LinkedIn this week.

Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager, said in testimony before the US Senate on Tuesday that "Facebook's products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy".

Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg hit back at the testimony in a blog post, saying Haugen's claims that the company puts profit over people's safety are "just not true".

Despite many attempts, Zuckerberg has never been able to access China's one billion internet users, due to Beijing's strict censorship laws. And Russia has recently started to flirt with the idea of having its own walled-off internet space. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the widespread outages at Facebook "answer the question about whether we need our own social media and internet platforms".

Zakharova's comments chime with China's long-standing approach of censoring internet content for its domestic audience, while nurturing its own internet companies and services that are ultimately answerable to the state under a concept of "internet sovereignty".

In its recent crackdown on Big Tech, Beijing has also moved to rein in the role of algorithms in directing users to content and services. For the Chinese government, the power of algorithms must be brought under the control of the ruling Communist Party to ensure that people's minds continue to be shaped by the state and not a data matrix.

In August, China's internet watchdog the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) released a draft regulation dedicated to algorithms, which, while seeking to expand the government's control over online content, also aims to empower users to decline recommendations generated by algorithms.

A platform should "immediately stop" personalised recommendations when a user rejects such a service, according to the draft.

For some commentators, China's approach to internet regulation is worth serious study.

"The guidelines are thus far the most comprehensive effort by any country to regulate recommender systems, and may serve as a model for other nations considering similar legislation," wrote Spandana Singh, a policy analyst at New America's Open Technology Institute, in an article published on tech media outlet VentureBeat.

This kind of perspective is in stark contrast to former US President Bill Clinton's description of Chinese efforts to control online information in the 1990s as like trying to "nail jelly to a wall".

However, this week's six-hour outage at Facebook, which had 2.9 billion monthly active users across its army of apps as of the end of June, lays bare the risks of relying absolutely on one Big Tech firm for the world's essential communication needs. And Haugen's testimony, although disputed, highlights tough questions over the role of social media in shaping opinion.

While China's approach to internet regulation by completely banning Facebook puts it in a group with Iran and North Korea - its recent measures to rein in the growing power of Big Tech and the role of algorithms in shaping the public mind, are gaining serious attention.

Last month, another directive from CAC and eight other regulators laid out a three-year plan to establish an algorithm governance framework, under which Beijing urges local governments to tighten oversight of algorithms with companies penalised and held accountable for malpractice.

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"What you really see China doing is handling the same problems that the US and the EU also have to deal with," consultant Turrin told the South China Morning Post in an interview. "Whether you like China's solution is another issue, and certainly China's solutions have parts of them that wouldn't fit in the West, [but] we should all be looking at what China is doing, and learn."

Rongbin Han, associate professor at the University of Georgia's Department of International Affairs, said that authoritarian regimes tend to face bigger challenges with content algorithms and have recognised the problems earlier than most democracies.

"Authoritarian regimes, especially high-capacity authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia, are ahead of the rest of the world in terms of content control and platform regulation, at least in some aspects," Han said. "So it is not surprising that the West now has to look at China to see what can be learned."

In its three-year plan, China's CAC says while algorithms have played an important role in the digital economy, when inappropriately used, they have "disrupted the dissemination of information, as well as market and social order, posing a challenge to the protection of ideology, social justice and the rights of internet users."

Many of China's netizens expressed amusement at Facebook's issues this week.

"Lucky that we use a local network," one internet user joked on Zhihu, China's Quora-like Q&A platform, drawing more than 100 likes.

Facebook, first blocked in China in 2009, remains unavailable today despite Zuckerberg's active efforts to woo China over the years, including posting family greetings during Lunar New Year, jogging through Beijing on a smoggy day and speaking in Mandarin at the prestigious Tsinghua University. Zuckerberg changed his stance in 2019 though as tensions escalated between the US and China.

In comments championing free expression and advocating for less scrutiny of Facebook, Zuckerberg criticised China for exporting the values and visions of its tightly-controlled internet culture to other countries, and specifically called out short video platform TikTok for censoring content about Hong Kong protests, which TikTok denied.

"Is that the internet we want?" Zuckerberg asked in October 2019, claiming that clashing values was one reason why Facebook does not operate in China.

And some analysts said Facebook's troubles should not be used as an endorsement of China's internet regime.

"I'm not sure it will do a lot in terms of greater support for the Chinese perspective," said Rogier Creemers, assistant professor in modern Chinese studies at Leiden University. "Most people in the West see these two issues - Facebook regulation and China - as separate".

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.