LinkedIn expanded into China this year, adopting policies in line with the country's censorship rules. Now the world's largest professional social-networking company is saying it may have gone too far.
When a LinkedIn user in China shares a post deemed to be in conflict with the government's rules, the company blocks the content not only in China but around the world. While LinkedIn's goal is to protect members against how their content might be shared and noticed by the government, the practice may end up stifling Chinese users seeking to spread messages outside their country.
"We do want to get this right, and we are strongly considering changing our policy so that content from our Chinese members that is not allowed in China will still be viewed globally,"said Hani Durzy, a spokesman for Mountain View, California-based LinkedIn.
LinkedIn's dilemma underscores the difficulty of doing business in a country with stringent censorship rules where few other U.S. technology companies have succeeded. Twitter and Facebook social-networking services are blocked in China, though Facebook is slowly expanding its advertising business there after signing a lease in central Beijing, people familiar with the matter have said.
"Every company wanting to operate in China has to look within themselves and ask how do you serve your users ideally, whether that's by staying in China and operating by the rules or leaving the country," said Jason Ng, a New York-based author of "Blocked on Weibo," a book on Chinese social media.
Other social-media companies have struggled with certain countries seeking to block content on their sites, and sometimes the entire site. Twitter was blocked earlier this year in Turkey in response to leaks targeting Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government amid a corruption probe. Twitter also has been blocked at times in North Korea, Pakistan, Iran and Egypt. For most countries, Twitter's policy is to remove content only in the country where it is illegal.
"It is one thing to block content in the country where it is illegal; another thing entirely to block it where it is permitted," Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for a New American Security, based in Washington, said in an e-mail. "The change of policy that LinkedIn is considering sounds like one step in the right direction."
LinkedIn is notifying people when content that's deemed inappropriate by the Chinese government is blocked. Marketplace journalist Rob Schmitz wrote a story about the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown and later got an e-mail from the company saying his story would not be seen by LinkedIn members in China, and that content posted from China "will be blocked globally to protect the safety of our members that live in China," Mr. Schmitz wrote recently.
The Chinese website for LinkedIn was rolled out in February to provide a localized service after more than a decade of having only an English-language site there.
LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner said in a blog post the same month that LinkedIn 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 realize the economic opportunities, dreams and rights most important to them," Weiner said in the post.
China is now LinkedIn's fastest-growing major market for new members, the CEO said on a July 31 conference call. While he's pleased with the results thus far, "there are certainly going to be challenges ahead," Mr. Weiner said.