The possibility of Facebook entering China has started to draw political scrutiny, with U.S. senator Dick Durbin questioning whether a rumored tie-up between the U.S. social networking site and Chinese search engine Baidu would affect users' free speech and privacy.
In recent months, the Web has been abuzz with reports that Facebook is gearing up to launch a site for China by partnering with the country's largest search engine, Baidu. Access to Facebook is currently blocked in China due to the country's strict Web censorship, which takes down content considered harmful or politically sensitive. Baidu, China's most popular search engine, censors some search results in order to comply with Chinese laws.
Neither Facebook or Baidu have publically mentioned any such partnership. But the senator took aim at the possibility in a letter to Baidu's CEO Robin Li. The senator also published the letter on his website on Wednesday.
In his letter, Durbin urged Baidu to protect users' free speech, and asked the company what steps it will take to ensure its services won't be misused by the Chinese government to censor the Internet and monitor political dissidents.
Durbin also said he was concerned about the possibility that Baidu and Facebook will partner to launch a social networking site in China.
"As demonstrated by recent developments in the Arab World, social networking technology is particularly susceptible to exploitation by governments," he wrote. He asked Baidu what safeguards would be implemented to protect users if the search company and Facebook do go ahead and launch a social networking site in China.
The letter could provide a preview of the kind of congressional criticism Facebook will face if it decides to enter the Chinese market. The same happened with Google years earlier when it decided to launch a censored version of its search engine in China. Google was forced to defend the move in front of U.S. lawmakers. Google shut its China-based search engine last year after the company decided it would no longer censor search results in the country. The Google.cn site now redirects search requests to the company's less-regulated search engine in Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China.
In recent months, China has also demonstrated its strict control over the Web after activists posted an online call urging the Chinese people to hold a "Jasmine revolution" against the government. Users on Chinese social networking sites and microblogs have been prevented from posting and searching for content related to the protest call.
If Facebook were to enter the Chinese market, the company would have to comply with these same strict censorship rules, said Michael Clendenin, managing director of RedTech Advisors.
Although Facebook's big draw is its international users base, the Chinese government might see this as more of a threat and force the social network to limit itself to China, he added.
"This advantage might actually be neutered by the Chinese government," Clendenin said. "Even if they partner with Baidu, Facebook would have to do a lot of censorship and that may be a bitter pill that they don't want to swallow," he said.
Baidu declined to comment on Durbin's letter, and Facebook could not immediately be reached for a response.
Speculation about Facebook's entrance into China began to heat up last year when CEO Mark Zuckerberg visited the country. During his time in Beijing, Zuckerberg met with Baidu executives including its CEO Robin Li.