It’s how you plan your Saturday night, keep in touch with your childhood best friend, and snoop on your workplace crush. It’s on your laptop, you Blackberry, and your iPad. Ask anyone under the age of sixty; Facebook is everywhere. Everywhere, that is, except China. But, is that about to change?
Reports circulating Monday April 10th 2011, suggest that Facebook may be close to securing a deal with Baidu – the largest Chinese search engine – to open a co-owned social network in China. The network wouldn’t involve Facebook.com, meaning it wouldn’t be linked to Facebook’s global service. However, if approved, the social network could operate in China, which has, to date, been impossible due to China’s strict censorship laws.
If the reports are true, the venture would be significant. China has over 450 million internet users – a huge potential market of social media enthusiasts waiting to be tapped. Moreover, if Facebook has struck a deal to enter China – even if it wasn’t directly affiliated with the global Facebook – it would be one of the first major international social networking sties to be allowed inside the country. Currently, China allows either no, or limited access to, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. Facebook investors are no doubt already drooling.
That said, the actual launch of such a site could take some time. Not only will Facebook have to liaise with Baidu on all decisions, they will also have to be approved by the Chinese government, and there will, no doubt be hoops to be jumped through and compromises to be made. However, for both Baidu and Facebook, the deal is worth waiting for. For Baidu, having Facebook onboard will guarantee a certain level of quality, expertise, and experience, and these factors will be necessary in order to compete with existing social networks within China such as Tencent. For Facebook, in order to tap into the huge Chinese market, they will need a partner, and who better than Baidu – the search engine that tops even Google China?
However, while Baidu’s employees, reports, and Mark Zuckerberg’s well documented trips to China over the past year seem to suggest the deal is practically done, both camps have remained quiet about the issue. Further, while they aren’t denying it, Facebook has released a statement which certainly does not confirm the deal, stating, “Facebook is currently studying and learning about China, as part of evaluating any possible approaches that could benefit our users, developers and advertisers.”
Only time will tell whether or not Facebook’s friend request will finally be accepted in China, but one thing is for sure. While the potential user base is undeniably huge, the joint venture will face several hurdles to meet the requirements of the Chinese government, and the question is: under strict censorship laws, is it possible to build a social network that provides the same level of communication and sharing potential as the original, or, will social media – so much of which is based on freedom of speech – suffer both functionally and financially?