LinkedIn and the cost of doing business in China

great wallA few weeks ago I covered the launch of LinkedIn in China. It’s been available in English there for a while now and has even managed to amass around 4 million users, I’m told, but this was a big deal because it could give the firm access to up to 140 million Chinese professionals.

That said, many questions remain unanswered about the move, and I’ve been doing a bit of digging to explore them.

The most important centre around exactly what LinkedIn will have to sacrifice to remain unblocked by the Great Firewall. We all know the likes of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have been forbidden for years by China’s censorship apparatus, but is the cost of doing business there actually worth the potential damage to reputation and bottom line?

Well, CEO Jeff Weiner had this to say about the compromises it has had to make:

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.

To me this seems a little disingenuous. Would Chinese citizens’ lives really benefit so much from a local language version of LinkedIn, or is this all about the money?

“I think the CEO should be more upfront about what exactly he is talking about in this situation,” Charlie Smith, co-founder of anti-censorship body, told me. “What he means to say is that in order for them to get a business license to operate in China so that they can start to sell advertising and recruitment notices, the Chinese authorities insisted that they self-censor.”

The problem is we still don’t know exactly what LinkedIn has agreed to censor. Surely a pre-requisite for getting the green light from Beijing’s censors is having a plan on exactly what will be monitored, and how many resources will be spent on human censors, filtering technologies, etc? Well, LinkedIn told me the license is still pending, and so it can’t be more specific on the details.

But it gets more complicated. Will, as Smith asked me, the profiles of certain rights groups or individuals be removed by LinkedIn, if requested? What if a Chinese user wants to connect with a rights group or dissident outside China? One presumes the firm will have to create some kind of internal firewall between Chinese users and those outside the Chinternet. Aside from the cost to the bottom line, this has all the ingredients for a potential PR disaster.

“How are they going to ‘protect’ Chinese users from seeing content that is being posted by people outside of China that they are connected with? When this kind of censorship comes to light, many people will start testing the LinkedIn platform to see how far this censorship will go,” Smith argued.

“Most people only use LI when they are looking for a job, so I would imagine that many professionals, upon hearing about this complicit censorship, will simply leave the platform and use traditional job boards for their employment search.”

I also spoke to Lucy Purdon at rights group the Institute for Human Rights and Business, which urged more transparency from LinkedIn and encouraged the firm to reach out to the ICT industry and civil society as a member of the Global Network Initiative.

Purdon added:

LinkedIn should learn from the experience of other ICT companies operating in China, especially where government requests for user details present particular risks to users and conflict with the company’s commitment to respect internationally recognised human rights.

In the post-Snowden fallout, LinkedIn has filed legal challenges in the US, seeking permission to provide greater transparency of the number of national security requests they receive from the US government. Given that, at the very least we would expect LinkedIn to push for the greatest transparency in China and include requests from the Chinese government in their transparency reports, which provides a country by country breakdown. In addition, LinkedIn should consider expanding the categories to include censorship requests.

Now this is just the opinions of two organisations. But they’re valid ones and highlight the problems facing any social media or user-generated content-heavy company trying to do business inside China. It’ll be very interesting to see just how LinkedIn handles these issues as it expands its beta service behind the Great Firewall.


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