Facebook launched a colourful, covert app in China to bypass censorship

14 Aug 2017

Image: AIFEATI/Shutterstock

Facebook’s attempt to subvert the ban on its service in China with a ‘secret’ app hasn’t exactly worked out as planned.

Silicon Valley’s biggest players are willing to do anything to tap into the lucrative Chinese market, even going so far as to agree to the government’s demands, despite challenging many a company ethos.

One such company is Facebook, which, according to The New York Times, secretly released an alternative to its site in China as a way to get around the social network’s ban in the country.

In May, photo-sharing app called Colorful Balloons was approved for release and, for all intents and purposes, looks like Facebook’s own Moments app.

On the promise of anonymity, the source told the newspaper that if you look at the app’s information, it shows that it was built by a local Chinese company with no affinity to Facebook – but this is not the case.

It marks one of the first obvious attempts by Facebook – or any of its fellow Silicon Valley giants – to subvert the strict censorship laws set out by the Chinese government, which remains fearful of outside influence on its citizens.

Even when Facebook’s dominant messaging platform WhatsApp finds itself topping the charts in Android downloads, it still lags behind the near 850m people who regularly use China’s alternative, WeChat, developed by Tencent.

Testing the water

In a statement, Facebook remained somewhat cryptic, saying: “We have long said that we are interested in China, and are spending time understanding and learning more about the country in different ways.”

However, according to Quartz, data from analytics firm App Annie has shown that despite a boost in downloads since news of the app went public, it still finds itself in a losing battle to beat the established players in China, such as Meitu and Meipai.

So far, its record ranking in the overall category of the App Store is 758, but it did get as high as 46 in the photo and video category.

While not a commercial success so far, the decision to covertly launch apps in China under different names could be the start of a new influx of apps from the likes of Facebook, Google and Apple as a means of tapping into the most sought-after market on Earth.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic