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Facebook and China: How far will Mark Zuckerberg go?

Can I really be the only writer covering Silicon Valley who is acutely troubled by Mark Zuckerberg's rather sycophant hosting of China's cyberspace czar, Lu Wei?

Mark Zuckerberg
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Mark Zuckerberg

Lu was in Silicon Valley last week and met with Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Tim Cook of Apple and Jeff Bezos of Amazon. Known colloquially as China's Internet regulator, Lu Wei's rather imposing title is: Chairman of State Internet Information Office, Vice-Chairman of State Council Information Office.

We do not have the full details of what was discussed at Facebook HQ. We did learn that Zuckerberg greeted Lu in Mandarin and that the Facebook founder keeps a copy of Chinese President Xi Jinxing's book on his desk. The book is appropriately titled "The Governance of China."

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These acts may not be just for show. As USA Today noted following the meeting with Lu, "Mark Zuckerberg is plowing through the speeches of China's Communist Party chief and forcing colleagues do the same."

It gets worse.

Zuckerberg apparently told Lu that he wants his chiefs to "understand socialism with Chinese characteristics."

What might these characteristics be, at least where Facebook and the Internet are concerned? Some are no doubt quite good. For example, in a 2013 speech entitled "Liberty and Order in Cyberspace," Lu stated that "in cyberspace, people with different skin colors, nationalities, cultures and languages should be equally entitled to participation, free speech and development." He added that "we should abandon prejudices, respect differences and be tolerant and open."

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Regrettably, in that very same speech Lu outlined his overarching views on "liberty and order" in cyberspace, including:

• "An Internet order that helps maintain security."

• "An Internet order that features law-based governance."

• "A cooperation mechanism for cyber security."

Lu Wei, China's Minister of Cyberspace Affairs Administration.
Johannes Eisele | AFP | Getty Images
Lu Wei, China's Minister of Cyberspace Affairs Administration.

Lu also stated in his speech that "good order depends on rules. The Internet is a free and open platform. Everyone has the right to speak. However, compliance with the law is the bottom line that no one should violate."

It was not clear if he meant only inside China.

My concern is that Facebook, already guilty of regularly altering its policies regarding user privacy, may further compromise how our data is shared and stored, and what services are made available — or not — as a concession to operate inside China, where Facebook has been blocked by the Great Firewall since 2009.

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Zuckerberg clearly wants to make a good impression on China. It's certainly hard to blame him for trying. As CEO of the publicly-traded Facebook, there may be no bigger growth opportunity. Moreover, connecting China's 600 million Internet users via Facebook with America and much of the rest of the world — and with one another — could legitimately improve nation-to-nation and person-to-person relations around the globe.

But will our data be made a bargaining chip in return for access to the China market? What levels of oversight and surveillance will China require — of its own citizens or possibly all Facebook users — before letting Facebook legally operate throughout the country?

Are my fears overstated? Perhaps. But would you feel more at ease or less if this week's in-office meeting between Zuckerberg and China's cyberspace minister was instead with the head of America's NSA?

I do not doubt the positive scope of Mr. Zuckerberg's grand ambitions. More than once he has stated his vision to connect the world. He has even hinted that he is prepared to spend in the "low tens of billions" to turn this dream into reality. But I remain concerned the laudable goal to bring Facebook and the Internet to all the world may have the deleterious effect of limiting the privacies and freedoms Facebook's current users have long since come to expect on the world wide web.

Access to new markets is critical for Facebook's future. There are concerns the social media giant is not growing fast enough — and there is no bigger market for Facebook than China. I just hope that when Facebook breaks out the cost per acquisition for all this user growth, they include the costs of our personal sovereignty. For everyone's, in fact.

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Commentary by Brian S. Hall, a writer covering mobile technology and social media. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Macworld, CIO, LinkedIn, Business Insider and several other sites. Follow him on Twitter @brianshall.

Disclosure: Hall does not own shares in Facebook.