Facebook may have struck a deal with local search giant Baidu to launch a new social network in China, according to reports surfacing today. It won't be connected to Facebook.com, thanks to China's strict national-level censorship. But it will allow Mark Zuckerberg to tap the huge Chinese population's online habits and make loads of cash.
Baidu rules the search market in China, much to Google's sorrow (and partly because Google wouldn't bow to China's demands to rigorously censor its search engine there). Facebook is also blocked inside China, due to government concerns that the social networking system could be a portal for Chinese citizens to see a different way of life and thus disrupt "social harmony." But the booming Chinese Net economy is a potential multi-billion-dollar affair that simply can't be ignored, so Facebook is launching a joint venture with Baidu to create a new social networking system for the Chinese people.
Insiders have leaked information on the deal to the Chinese press, which is effectively an official "unofficial" confirmation of the story, and these people are also noting that the new system wouldn't connect to Facebook.com—highlighting that the new social network, whenever it arrives after China's various regulatory bodies give approval, will be a stand-alone affair.
But there are more questions than answers at this point. Will it be called Facebook, or a variant thereof? Will you at least be able to "friend" Chinese users, on some kind of heavily filtered level from the real Facebook? Will Facebook accede to Chinese requests to censor the kind of activities that go on, and surrender information on request to the Chinese authorities so they can control dissenting comment?
It's unlikely that the new service will be called Facebook, given China's habit of marking things in its own way. And it's unlikely China will let its users skip over the Great Firewall to connect with foreign Facebookers and risk cultural "contamination." And if it wants to operate in China, gaining access to a potentially massive and lucrative market, Facebook will have to abide by with Chinese laws about self-regulating censorship and demands to snoop on user activity—the very same laws Google refused to comply with.
Baidu stands to benefit from Facebook's technical and branding expertise, which could easily let it craft a social network that could unseat local social champion Renren.
But the deal doesn't come without risks to Facebook. China's record on human rights abuses is highly tarnished (and in the headlines at the moment due to the controversial arrest of globally renowned artist Ai Weiwei). And Facebook, by providing a sophisticated and addictive social network system to China, could be seen as giving the government another tool with which to control its population. PR like this is tricky to deal with, Mark Zuckerberg will have to tread a careful line.
[Image via Flickr user beltzner under CClicense]