Now a startup, FamilyLeaf, has found a break in the Great Firewall — allowing Chinese families to get a glimpse at the Facebook photos of their loved ones.
FamilyLeaf co-founder Wesley Zhao says he can feel how censorship affects his family in China. Virtual Private Networks provide access for some privileged Chinese Internet users, though the majority are restricted.
“Lots of Chinese American families have been disconnected by the Great Firewall of China,” Zhao toldMashable. “FamilyLeaf isn’t something the government would worry about, as it’s just for family. It’s a perfect way for people to connect, even if some of their family’s content is on Facebook or other blocked sites. ”
While the Chinese government blocks Facebook’s main domain, user photos are stored on a separate content delivery network (CDN). Because of these separate CDNs, FamilyLeaf users can share photos directly from their Facebook albums, without an addition upload.
Zhao’s family loves the hundreds of his photos they can now see and he enjoys seeing their photos he has missed because he’s not active on Chinese social networks.
“We don’t think the Chinese government did this by accident,” Zhao says. “The Facebook photos CDN is still available because the government is concerned about people organizing protests. Photos are not going to rile up protests.”
The site, which launched Tuesday, functions as a private directory for families, much like a mini-social network. You can share Facebook, Flickr, Picasa and Instagram photos, write on a family message board, and store contact information in the closed forum.
FamilyLeaf wasn’t started with the intention of connecting Chinese families specifically. Co-founder Ajay Mehta’s father keeps lists of relatives’ contact information strewn around his house. The startup’s primary goal is to connect families separated by distance.
“Most kids don’t want to friend their parents and lots of parents go on Facebook exclusively to share baby photos,” Zhao says. “The general purpose of FamilyLeaf is to help families connect in a very private way.”
Once they discovered Facebook photos could be shared with Chinese Internet users, the site has taken on a new life. Zhao’s father quickly translated the site into Chinese, to optimize its utility for users in China.
Before officially launching, FamilyLeaf has received significant international attention, receiving press in China, France and Italy, and active users in India, Israel, and Greece.
FamilyLeaf has no immediate plans to monetize. Zhao says it won’t take advertising, which he feels would detract from the site’s authenticity. The company would look into services that will add value within the context of the family, such as planning family reunions or sending cards.
Would you try FamilyLeaf to keep in touch with your family? Do you think the Chinese government will continue to allow Facebook photos to come through the Great Firewall?
Image of Wesley Zhao’s niece Mumu, courtesy of the Zhao family