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Did LinkedIn Look Before Leaping the Great Firewall of China?

LinkedIn recently became one of the first major US social networking sites allowed to operate in China when it launched a local language service there in February. The likes of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others have all been banned by Beijing for years and will have long since come to the depressing conclusion that they may never gain access to the world’s largest single internet market. LinkedIn, by contrast, could boost its global user base by over 50% if it can tap the 140 million professionals it reckons live in China. But at what real cost to the company is its expansion into the Middle Kingdom?

First up, a caveat. It’s perhaps unfair to lump LinkedIn with the likes of Facebook et al as it’s effectively an online business network. As such, the kind of discourse conducted on its platform will by its very nature be less controversial for the authorities than the user-generated content which appears on consumer-targeted services.

LinkedIn has also had an English-language service operating in China for some time, amassing around four million members, and obviously has a decent relationship with the state’s “relevant organs”, which goes a long way in a culture dominated by guanxi (personal relationships) and face. It’s also true that unlike Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, for example, LinkedIn has no major domestic competitor which has dominated the China market in its absence. There’s Tianji which has over 17 million users, and then a hotchpotch of others including Dajie and Hongtao, but nothing on the scale of Twitter rival Sina Weibo which is said to have over 600 million registered users.

This means that for the authorities there is still some merit in allowing LinkedIn behind the Great Firewall – after all it’s a global platform which could connect China’s business elite better to the outside world. By contrast there’s virtually no incentive for Beijing to unblock Facebook, when Renren has almost 200 million users; or YouTube, when Youku Tudou has over 500 million.

The fact remains, however, that LinkedIn has had to compromise in order to launch its local language service in China. Anticipating the barrage of questions, CEO Geoff Weiner had the following in a blog post announcing the launch:

“As a condition for operating in the country, the government of China imposes censorship requirements on internet platforms. LinkedIn strongly supports freedom of expression and fundamentally disagrees with government censorship. At the same time, we also believe that LinkedIn’s absence in China would deny Chinese professionals a means to connect with others on our global platform, thereby limiting the ability of individual Chinese citizens to pursue and realise the economic opportunities, dreams and rights most important to them.”

A slippery slope

LinkedIn had no update to share with me aside from the fact its licence is still pending from Beijing so it’ll have a better understanding of “content requirements” in the months ahead. Twitter and Facebook integration will presumably be missing for starters. However, there are many more questions to answer. Charlie Smith of non-profit anti-censorship organisation Greatfire.org sent the following to me by email:

“If LinkedIn admits already that it has agreed to self-censor, it must have a list of items that it has been asked to monitor. What are those items and will LinkedIn share this information? Will LinkedIn publish a China transparency report to highlight what information it is being asked to remove? Will it start removing profiles of people that it finds objectionable? Will it start to block access to certain company profiles or executive profiles? For example, will Ai Weiwei be allowed to create and maintain a LI profile? Will Chinese users of LinkedIn be allowed to follow Human Rights Watch? Will they be allowed to make connections with human rights dissidents outside of China?”

It’s not hard to see how self-censorship can be a slippery slope for foreign web businesses in China, even those primarily publishing business-related user-generated content. Smith believes the move “will really backfire for LinkedIn and for multinationals who use the platform for marketing”, and could even lead to professionals leaving the service.

Lucy Purdon, ICT programme support manager for rights group the Institute for Human Rights and Business added that LinkedIn could also potentially be asked to hand over private user data to the authorities, which could damage its reputation. Yahoo! was widely condemned in the early 2000s when it handed over information on two high-profile Chinese dissidents, leading to their imprisonment.

Purdon added that LinkedIn could learn a lot from the experience of other ICT companies operating in China such as its co-members of the Global Network Initiative (GNI), including Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and human rights groups. “LinkedIn should also elaborate on the ‘extensive measures’ it is undertaking to protect the data of users, due to the enhanced risks in China and the consequences,” she told me.

The cost of censorship

But there’s another problem for LinkedIn connected with censorship – the cost to the bottom line. This is still to a great extent a shadowy, unknowable area. However, thanks to Harvard professor Gary King we can deduce a lot more. He was told that to keep the government happy a site needs to employ two or three censors per 50,000 users, or 60 per million.

Greatfire.org’s Smith argued that for LinkedIn this could mean “a monthly burn rate of RMB 300,000 ($48,000) on censorship alone, not including rent, electricity, computers or any related technology”. Other reports have put the figure at far less, however. Reuters claimed last year, for example, that Weibo only employs around 150 censors despite its huge user numbers.

Another potential problem for LinkedIn to deal with is that I’ve heard anecdotally that many young Chinese users today are turning not to its rivals in the business social network space but to tools like Weibo and WeChat for job hunting. However, Forrester Research analyst Xiaofeng Wang believes their lack of advanced capabilities like CV and professional profile building will still give LinkedIn an advantage.

“MNCs and English-speaking professionals in China have used LinkedIn for years. They are the most valuable users and the trend-setters,” she told me. ”The largest barrier for LinkedIn to grow beyond a niche in China was language. Now Linkedin has a Chinese name and starts to provide a local language service it will certainly help expand the user base.”

Whether the firm can expand enough to balance out the undoubted costs of doing business in China will be a fascinating test for us to watch over the coming years.

 

John Anderson has been writing about technology and all things Asia for over a decade, having started out on some of the UK's best known best-known IT trade titles. From his perch in the Far East he keeps a keen eye on the global significance of emerging trends in the region. 

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John Anderson

John Anderson has been writing about technology and all things Asia for over a decade, having started out on some of the UK's best known best-known IT trade titles. From his perch in the Far East he keeps a keen eye on the global significance of emerging trends in the region. 

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