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Facebook : Covertly Launches Mobile App in China

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08/12/2017 | 04:42am CEST
By Deepa Seetharaman 

Facebook Inc. covertly launched a mobile app in China, in a shift from the social network's public campaign to woo Beijing officials who have blocked the social network.

In May, Facebook made its debut a photo-sharing app called Colorful Balloons in China under the name of a different company, according to a person familiar with the matter. The app was developed by Young LLC but doesn't advertise its affiliation with Facebook.

"We have long said that we are interested in China, and are spending time understanding and learning more about the country in different ways, " a Facebook spokeswoman said.

The New York Times first reported the app's connection to Facebook, whose services have been blocked on China's internet since 2009.

Facebook executives spent years publicly courted Chinese officials, hiring a well-connected China-policy expert and making Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg more visible.

He gave a 22-minute speech in Mandarin in 2015 and jogged through Tiananmen Square on a smoggy day in 2016. He also scored a high-profile board seat at Tsinghua University, one of China's top universities, to build inroads with government officials.

At one point, Mr. Zuckerberg directed Facebook engineers to work on a tool that would allow third-parties -- including governments like China -- to block content before it could be posted on Facebook, people familiar with the effort have said. Development of the tool sparked a debate among employees last summer, the people said.

More recently, Facebook's public outreach to Beijing has cooled off. Colorful Balloons suggests the social-media giant is undertaking a more subtle approach.

While the Facebook app can't be used in China, some of its other apps are available, including Layout and Boomerang, creative-tool apps built by Instagram, the photo-sharing app owned by Facebook. These apps don't need to communicate with a server to be used and haven't been blocked.

Write to Deepa Seetharaman at [email protected]

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