Zuckerberg goes to China

by Shashwat Udit:

A leaked photo revealed that Facebook founder and Time Person of the Year Mark Zuckerberg visited China and among other things, toured the offices of Chinese search engine Baidu. It was billed as a social visit, but Zuckerberg has made no secret of his desire to crack the Chinese market. It will be a difficult task. Facebook is blocked in China, and even if did gain access, indigenous social networking sites already have huge market shares. Its troubles are not unique. Other technology firms have also had difficulties in China. The most publicized one being Google’s struggle with censorship, which eventually caused it to cite its motto of “don’t be evil” and leave the market to Chinese competitors. Among those competitors was Baidu which has excellent relations with senior Chinese Communist Party officials and in what was most likely not a coincidence, the firm that Mr. Zuckerberg visited.

The CEO of a huge internet firm trying to get permission to operate in a country from its government was probably not the image many had in mind for the future of the internet 15 years ago. Technological change was supposed to usher in a new era where the free flow of information broke down boundaries, empowered the individual, and shifted the balance or power from hierarchies to the grassroots. We have seen the impact of the more radical forms of the idea in recent weeks as Wikileaks has battled for complete global transparency, but the idea that the internet would spread freedom was held from everyone from cyberpunk hackers to the U.S. State Department.  It hasn’t happened. As internet penetration has skyrocketed across the globe, the last four years have seen modest reversals to the democratic trend of the last half-century.

Shanghai (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Why? Is it just a blip with Julian Assange’s vision of sticking it to the man destined to prevail over Zuckerberg’s vision of getting in the man’s good graces? Making predictions is difficult, in part because technology cuts both ways. It is well known that technology can disperse power, but it can also concentrate it.  A phenomenon well known in computer science circles is Metcalfe’s law: the value of a network is exponentially proportional to the number of users on a network. In simple terms, the more people use a network, the more useful it becomes, and therefore more people use it in a self-reinforcing cycle. If you make internet calls, its probably Skype you use, for auctioning something its Ebay, for social networking its Facebook. It is not because you compared them against and preferred them over their competitors. It is because everyone else uses them, and a well-coded social networking site with no one on it is useless. The same logic applies to everyone else, and the net result is to make a few people very rich.  The other reason that making predictions is difficult is that technology is a tool: it can be used for whatever its users choose to use it for. People use technology to find love; people use technology to break up. Dissidents can use it to organize against totalitarian states; totalitarian states can use it to monitor dissidents. The choices are what matter. Right now Zuckerberg is making one of these choices, and although I hesitate to condemn on slender evidence, what evidence is out there suggest he is choosing to use it to benefit the cause of … Mark Zuckerberg.