U.S. Senator Probes Baidu-Facebook Partnership

U.S. Senator Dick Durbin from Illinois has written a letter to Baidu's chief executive asking to confirm whether rumors about Facebook's entry to China via a partnership with the search giant is true, and if so, how would this affect free speech and privacy.

Although Facebook has yet to release an official statement about a partnership with search engine Baidu in order to finally enter the Chinese market, many regard the move as a done deal. That includes U.S. Senator Dick Durbin.

The Illinois Democrat and assistant majority leader in the Senate has written a letter to Baidu’s Chief Executive Officer Robin Li, asking him about the how the partnership between that search engine service and Facebook would affect Chinese users’ right to free speech and privacy.

A copy of the letter appears at the bottom of this post. In this missive, Durbin explains that Baidu “has a moral obligation to respect fundamental human rights,” and that, after personally trying to use Baidu during a visit to China, he confirmed that “Baidu heavily censors its search results.”

“I am also concerned about recent reports that Baidu and Facebook may enter into a partnership to launch a social-networking site in China,” Durbin states. He asks whether this rumor is true, and if so, how Facebook users in China will be “protected.”

I think the senator fails to understand that you can’t frame the issue like this: “protecting” Chinese users is precisely what the Chinese government thinks it’s doing whenever they censor a website or even part of on. Baidu operates in China and caters to Chinese users, following the country’s rules. In reality, if there is anyone Durbin should be asking that question to is Facebook, more so than Baidu, don’t you think?

In all fairness, Durbin is partially concerned about this partnership precisely because, according to him, Facebook has thus far failed to place safeguards to protect activists in “repressive governments” that use the social network to advocate for human rights.

Implied here: Durbin has concerns about whether Facebook will adequately address protecting the human rights of potential Chinese users.

Rumors about the controversial partnership have consistently become stronger in the past couple of weeks. It’s a well-known fact that, were Facebook’s entry into China confirmed, the social network would have to come up with ways to censor plenty of its content.

Because the mechanics of such a move will create heaps of controversy, it’s no wonder that we’ve been talking about this partnership ever since Mark Zuckerberg’s visit to China late last year, but have yet to hear any official details on how this partnership would actually play out.

What do you think about Durbin writing to Baidu’s CEO — should the U.S. government have any say in Facebook’s moves overseas?

May 4, 2011

Robin Li
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer
Baidu Inc.
Beijing, People’s Republic of China

Dear Mr. Li:

I write to express my serious concerns about your company’s censorship of the internet. I urge you to take immediate and tangible steps to protect human rights, including freedom of expression and privacy.

I understand that Baidu controls the vast majority of the internet search market in China. Your share of the search market increased when Google, the second largest search engine in China, decided to stop cooperating with the Chinese government’s internet censorship regime.

I appreciate that Baidu has given millions of Chinese citizens the ability to access information. At the same time, your company has a moral obligation to respect fundamental human rights. This is particularly important in light of the Chinese government’s recent crackdown on dissent, including the detention of many internet activists.

According to China Digital Times, Baidu “has a long history of being the most proactive and restrictive online censor in the search arena.” Technology expert Rebecca MacKinnon says “consistently, Baidu has censored politically sensitive search results much more thoroughly than Google.cn.” As a reward for Baidu’s censorship efforts, you reportedly received the “China Internet Self-Discipline Award” from the Chinese government.