China lifts Facebook ban ... a bit - report

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China could soon allow access to Facebook in a new free trade zone.

After years of being locked out of China, Facebook and several media companies have been given the green light in the country -- sort of.

According to the South China Morning Post, the Chinese government has decided to lift a ban on foreign websites deemed politically sensitive, albeit only within the newly developed Shanghai Free Trade Zone.

That means those within the 17-square-mile area will be able to access Facebook (FB), Twitter, The New York Times (NYT) and more. The Free Trade Zone launches on Sunday and is intended to serve as a testing ground for financial and service sector reforms, including increased access to the tightly-controlled yuan. Should Beijing deem the experiment a success over the long run, some of the policies could be implemented in other parts of China.

Currently, Facebook and Twitter are among websites that remain blocked by the government's censorship system, casually referred to as the Great Firewall of China. Attempts to access Facebook result in an error message: "Network Timeout."

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This latest development lets Facebook and Twitter get their feet in the door of the most populous and fastest-growing Internet community in the world. Both companies have acknowledged a desire to tap into the world's largest social media market, with 513 million Internet users -- more than double the size in the United States.

News of the partially lifted ban caught several major players by surprise. A Facebook spokeswoman said the company was only aware of the Post news report.

A spokeswoman at the New York Times had only this to say: "We are hearing the same thing you are." Twitter did not respond to requests for comment.

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Lifting the ban would mark the first time in years that people in the mainland will have access to Facebook and Twitter without disruption. Facebook was blocked after the minority Uighur group used the social media site to organize against the government in 2009. The Chinese government was keen to keep strict control over social media after Twitter was widely used to coordinate protests during the 2011 Arab Spring.

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Still, some Chinese citizens have managed to get around the censors, according to data compiled by Global Web Index, a research firm. Between 2009 and 2012, the number of those secretly using Facebook in China grew from 8 million to 63 million. During that span, the number of Chinese Twitter users grew from 12 million to 35 million.

Those numbers are still a drop in the bucket compared to those using government-approved social media sites, including Renren, (RENN) Sina (SINA) Weibo and WeChat, whose users number in the hundreds of millions.

Global Web Index estimates 15% of Chinese citizens use Facebook, while 56% or more use Tencent Weibo, Sina Weibo or Qzone.

Facebook is well aware of the competition and government challenges, even noting that in its initial public offering registration document.

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