Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB) and its traditional apps have long been banned in China amid oppressive censorship laws from the nation’s quasi-fascist government.
But as the New York Times reports, the social media giant has found a way into the massive market with a secret app it’s never announced any connection to:
Facebook approved the May debut of a photo-sharing app, called Colorful Balloons, in China, according to a person with knowledge of the company’s plans, who declined to be named because the information is politically sensitive. The app, which has not previously been reported, shares the look, function and feel of Facebook’s Moments app. It was released through a separate local company and without any hint that the social network is affiliated with it.
The stealthy and anonymous release of an app by a major foreign technology company in China is unprecedented. It shows the desperation — and frustration — of global tech companies as they try to break into the world’s largest online market. It also underscores the lengths they are willing to go, and their increasing acceptance of the idea that standards for operating in China are different from elsewhere.
China’s more than 700 million internet users represent a huge opportunity for American tech firms, but the country’s harsh censorship practices make doing business there nearly impossible in many cases. Google, for example, has completely given up on its attempts, although it owns a de facto presence in the country via its Android operating system.
Facebook, meanwhile, was banned in China way back in 2009. Instagram followed in 2014, and its WhatsApp messaging service was essentially disabled last month.
Now, the company is trying to figure out a different way to operate there. Playing by the government’s oppressive and temperamental rules is a requirement to do so, but the way it’s going about it — near total secrecy — shows just how difficult the proposition is.
Facebook is back in China, but not in a way that anyone could have anticipated. It may be the only way to get things done in a country that insists on total control over the media.
Facebook Inc shares closed at $168.08 on Friday, up $0.68 (+0.41%). Year-to-date, FB has gained 46.09%, versus a 10.22% rise in the benchmark S&P 500 index during the same period.