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China to lift ban on Facebook, but only within Shanghai free-trade zone

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MUMBAI: Beijing has made the landmark decision to lift a ban on internet access within the Shanghai Free-trade Zone to foreign websites considered politically sensitive by the Chinese government, including Facebook, Twitter and newspaper website The New York Times.



There are rumors afloat that they would also welcome bids from foreign telecommunications companies for licences to provide internet services within the new special economic zone.



Now the mainland's three biggest telecommunications companies China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom - which are all state-owned enterprises - will need to be wary of the competition from foreign companies to compete with them for business in the free-trade zone in Shanghai.



However Beijing's decision to open up internet access only applies to the free-trade zone and not anywhere else in the country. In late August the State Council, China's cabinet, approved the launch of the free-trade zone in Shanghai, which will span 28.78 square kilometres in the city's Pudong New Area, including the Waigaoqiao duty-free zone, Yangshan deepwater port, and the international airport area.



Facebook and Twitter - banned on the mainland since 2009 - have played important roles in political movements in the Middle East in recent years, and Beijing is concerned about the impact of new media on social stability.



Although China's economy is now already the world's second largest, just behind the United States, Beijing keeps tight control over the media. It blocks access to several internet websites through the Great Firewall of China, the colloquial name for the Golden Shield project which is operated by the Ministry of Public Security.



Foreign visitors and many foreigners who reside on the mainland for work and study have complained about difficulties in accessing those news sites. Occasionally even the world's No 1 search engine Google and its email service Gmail are unavailable.



Bosses at social media networks and major media companies whose websites are banned on the mainland have lobbied Beijing for years to lift these bans. More recently, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg met Cai Mingzhao, the head of the State Council Information Office in Beijing, and an official photograph of the meeting was published on the Chinese government's website, though Facebook said Sandberg's visit to China was mainly to promote her new book.

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