Social media lessons from China’s Great Firewall: censorship, authentication

Great Wall of China

Great Wall of China

Late last month, Sina Weibo announced that it would be allowing international users to register via Facebook. However, as Weibo largely failed to expand, its market remains China-centric. This means that the target market for Facebook registration likely consists of the Chinese diaspora, Sinophiles, future expats, and other people likely to visit the Middle Kingdom at one time or another. For these populations, not only is Facebook registration too little, too late, but it also appears counterintuitive to Weibo’s usefulness in its home market.

After all, Facebook has been blocked in China since 2009, so this begs the question: if I use Facebook to register for Sina Weibo in San Francisco, and then hop on the next flight to Beijing, would my Facebook login exclude me from Weibo in the very country where it’s most relevant?

Even in the US, I encountered a similar problem while doing research at a local library. At home, I used Facebook to register for web survey tool SurveyMonkey, but later my data was inaccessible due to the library’s social media prohibitions. SurveyMonkey itself was not blocked, but external authentication via Facebook effectively locked me out.

The problem of Weibo’s Facebook login

Weibo login

Today, however, at Sina Weibo, I decided to open a new account via its quasi-international Hong Kong landing page (pictured above), and there appears to be somewhat of an accidental fail-safe in place to address the Facebook-in-China issue. Every time I login to Weibo with my Facebook credentials, it continually forces me to pair with an existing Weibo username and password (or create Weibo credentials). While this apparent bug solves the problem of Facebook-registered users who visit China, it also totally defeats the purpose of external authentication. Facebook registrants should be required to create both Facebook and Weibo credentials when first creating an account, but all subsequent logins should permit using one or the other.

Whether or not Weibo figures out its Facebook registration issues, there are lessons to be learned regarding external authentication that extend beyond the Great Firewall.

While tech companies outside China may not be concerned about censorship, there are thousands of smaller-scale censorship operations that permeate society. Basically, if it is important for your service to be accessible in schools, libraries, and workplaces – some of the most common locations that employ social media firewalls – you must provide alternative login options for customers who registered via Facebook and other external authentication methods.

This article by Ken Chester originally appeared on Tech in Asia, a Burn Media publishing partner.



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