China may lift ban on Facebook, Twitter in Shanghai free-trade zone

China's first free-trade zone will allow access to Facebook, Twitter and other websites banned elsewhere in the country, a Hong Kong newspaper reported. Above, a sign under construction reads "China (Shanghai) Pilot Free Trade Zone."
(AFP/Getty Images)

SAN FRANCISCO -- In what could be the toehold that Facebook has been looking for, the giant social network and other websites banned in China may be accessible in a free-trade zone that is being set up in Shanghai, according to a report in the South China Morning Post.

China’s first free-trade zone will allow the access in a rare exception to strict government control of the Internet, the Hong Kong newspaper reported.

The report, citing unnamed government sources, said authorities would also welcome bids from foreign telecommunications firms for licenses to offer Internet services in the trade zone, an area established in July that covers less than 20 miles.


China’s ruling Community Party censors the Internet, blocking access to websites. Facebook and Twitter were blocked by Beijing in 2009 after deadly riots in the western province of Xinjiang.

“Bosses at social media networks and major media companies whose websites are banned on the mainland have lobbied Beijing for years to lift these bans,” the report said.

Sterne Agee analyst Arvind Bhatia says Facebook is getting “a foot in the door” in China.

“While the lifting of the ban on Facebook in China is currently limited only to the Shanghai Free Trade Zone, it is an important first step,” he wrote in a research report.

If Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg wants to realize his mission of connecting all 7 billion people on the planet, he cannot afford to skip over the world’s most populous nation, home to 1.3 billion people.

“Over time, if the Chinese government were to open up access to a broader area in the future, companies such as Facebook would be better positioned,” Bhatia wrote.

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg met this month with the government agency that oversees control of the Internet in China.


Sandberg sat down with Cai Mingzhao, head of China’s State Council Information Office, to discuss the “important role” Facebook plays in helping Chinese companies expand abroad. Sandberg and Cai discussed other forms of cooperation but the Chinese government did not specify what those were.


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