The company has launched a Chinese language based network giving the company greater exposure. “Given the rapid acceleration and development of China’s economy, the expansion of our offering in China marks a significant step forward in our mission to connect the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful,” CEO Jeff Weiner wrote in a blog post.
In order to do business in China, LinkedIn, needs to acquire an Internet content provider license from the Chinese government. For the license to be issued, China requires that Internet companies actively censor certain content.
Twitter and Facebook were banned from the country for refusing to do so and when Google stopped censoring its search results in 2010 they were kicked off China’s mainland. Now, when users try to access Google in mainland China they are redirected to its Hong Kong site. Traffic on Google’s search engine has fallen significantly in China as well.
In order for LinkedIn to remain competitive in China they will have to comply with China’s demands such as storing data on Chinese users on servers in China. The Company will have to comply with things in China that they would not have to comply with in other countries. That means filtering content and they will legally be required to do so in order to do business with the Chinese.
It’s not clear how often China scrubs posts from social media sites from within its borders. How regularly the government will compel LinkedIn to censor posts is not clear either. Social media users bad-mouthing the Chinese government isn't what the censors are targeting. What the censors are cracking down on are attempts at collective action. They don’t want anyone to collectively control the movement of people to protest against the Chinese government. That’s what could cause the Chinese government to lose its power. It has been estimated that approximately 13 percent of all social media posts are censored or removed in China due to these sorts of attempts at mobilizing protest movements.
LinkedIn, however, may be better positioned to succeed in China due to the nature of its content. That could mean less attention from the Chinese government and less man-hours needed to comb through potentially incriminating posts. The LinkedIn network is not exactly the platform for mobilizing activists in the way Twitter and Facebook have become in recent times.
In America social media sites pride themselves on free speech and censorship is not much of an issue when it comes to freedom of expression. The censorship issue in China though can become a financial headache, especially, when abiding by China’s often vague censorship directives. Micro-blogging sites in China have to invest armies of individuals who spend their time looking through content. They must determine what should or shouldn't be removed and this can be quite expensive for companies doing business in mainland China.
It is not always easy though for America’s social media companies to attract China’s internet users. It is mostly due to the fact that China is already heavily connected online with a variety of its own social networks. Sina Weibo, a micro-blogging service that serves as a kind of hybrid of Facebook and Twitter, boasts 61.4 million daily active users. WeChat, a Chinese messaging and commerce service somewhat similar to WhatsApp, has 272 million monthly users worldwide.
Living in China, I quickly noticed how the Chinese government exerts control over its Internet. The government here for instance easily throttles its loading speeds against American newcomers so that they can’t easily compete with the Chinese-owned incumbents. It can be quite frustrating when using Google services when its internet speeds have been slowed in this way.
American and Chinese Internet firms may soon become direct competitors in America as well. Chinese social media outlets will soon arrive on American shores this year. The social media company Sina Weibo has been quietly testing an English version of its social network and is reportedly prepping a U.S. IPO for the second quarter of this year. WeChat has also launched a promotional campaign earlier this year to lure in more American users. The ironic thing about China’s push into the U.S. market - once the Chinese companies reach the American shores, censorship, will no longer be the law of their new frontier.
As LinkedIn negotiates within China’s borders the Chinese government is in no way easing up on its censorship laws or online policies. For instance, bloggers who post online rumors against the Chinese government that are widely re-shared is punishable up to three years in jail.
American companies wanting to do business with the Chinese should calculate the moral and ethical ramifications of China's stringent censorship laws. Especially, when the law of the land infringes on a person’s freedom of expression or I should say the lack thereof.
The over the top censorship is only hurting China in the long run because it restrains the creative spark of China's energetic youth. Our freedom to express ourselves openly and honestly is part of what makes America the greatest Nation on earth. It's our creative spirit that attracts people from all Nations of the world - they come to our country in order to embrace and emulate our way of life.
My students at the Suzhou International Foreign Language School in Suzhou, China, express often their desire to come to America. They want to experience our freedom and our creative energy that seems to transcend all cultural boundaries - that in itself can make one proud to be an American.
- Always with love from Suzhou, China
Thomas F O’Neill
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