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 Greatfire.org, 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.

Advertisements

Sweaty palms as Myanmar stalls telco license decision

burma templeOver on The Register I’ve been following quite closely the carve up of Myamar (Burma) by international technology giants.

This deceptively massive country bordering China, Thailand, India and Laos, has of course only recently opened its doors to the global community after decades of self-imposed exile thanks to rule by a military junta.

So Myanmar not only offers tech firms a market of 60 million+ users to tap, but also offers rich business opportunities for infrastructure providers and could even serve as an outsourcing destination in the years to come.

An IDC report from last year, Myanmar ICT Market 2012–2016 Forecast and Analysis, predicts 15 per cent year-on-year growth in IT spending in 2012, with the market to reach $268.45m (£172.9m) by 2016.

One of the biggest opportunities lies in the telecoms space where global operators have been eyeing up the two licenses set to be awarded this month. However, the decision – due to take place today – was postponed at the last minute until lawmakers pass a new telecommunications law, still be being drafted.

It emerged that an emergency statement was submitted by a telecoms committee urging lawmakers to favour local joint ventures over global bids.

Whether this ends up scuppering the ambitions of France Telecom, Qatar Telecom, Singtel, Telenor and others remains to be seen, but it must be said that some operators are walking a fine line in getting stuck into the country before human rights concerns have been fully allayed.

Human Rights Watch, for example, has been lobbying telcos to boycott the country until legislation is passed which does better to outlaw things like mass surveillance and hardline censorship.

In fact, Vodafone and China Mobile withdrew their joint bid last month, in what some think was a decision influenced by Myanmar’s current failure to protect online freedoms.

John Morrison executive director of the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB), told me that if nothing else, the recent NSA debacle has shown that even in western democracies, telcos are vulnerable to mass surveillance requests from governments.

“Given Myanmar’s human rights record it is all the more important that the companies that secure the license to operate in the country do so in a way that respects privacy and free expression,” he added.

“As Myanmar continues political and economic reforms, it should work towards making telecommunications technology a tool for advancing human rights, including guarding against hate speech that incites violence.”

Time will tell whether Myanmar can make a stable transition from repressive hermit state to 21st century Asian tiger, but if it does, technology will be a major driving force.