Since launching a Chinese version of LinkedIn (LNKD) in February, the social-networking company has been zealously censoring posts from its users in the country. LinkedIn has not only zapped any off-limits content internally; it has also kept the material from appearing on LinkedIn pages outside China.
But after going above and beyond to reassure Chinese Internet cops, LinkedIn Chief Executive Jeff Weiner seems to have chosen now, of all times, to announce that the company is thinking about easing some of its censorship. “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,” LinkedIn spokesman Hani Durzy said on Tuesday.
The last big U.S. Internet company to announce it was backing away from censorship in China was Google (GOOG), which in 2010 stopped censoring searches in the country. That didn’t end well for the search giant, which has largely ceded the Chinese search market to Baidu (BIDU) and other local rivals that aren’t so squeamish about censorship.
Given that experience, the timing of the LinkedIn news is especially daring. The company statement about backing away from censorship comes just a few days after China revealed a plan that dashed the hopes many in Hong Kong had that China would allow a real election for the next chief executive of the city. With its drop-dead ultimatum to the prodemocracy forces in Hong Kong, President Xi Jinping’s regime has made clear how little interest the Chinese Communist Party has for any talk about greater political freedom.
China is the world’s largest Internet market, and LinkedIn wants to be able to take advantage of its growth. But going along with Chinese censorship is not just about boosting user numbers, the company said when it announced the launch of its China service in February. Back then, Weiner explained that LinkedIn would be doing a disservice to its users worldwide if it allowed squeamishness about censorship to get in the way of signing up more Chinese users. “We want to digitally map the global economy, identifying the connections between people, companies, jobs, skills, and professional knowledge,” he wrote, “thus allowing all forms of capital—intellectual, working, and human—to flow to where it can best be leveraged.”
A company with such lofty ambitions naturally doesn’t want to give up on the world’s second-largest economy. Maybe LinkedIn will be able to have it both ways—tapping into the Chinese market while also easing up a bit on censorship. And maybe LinkedIn, unlike Google, will be able to pull off this trick without antagonizing leaders wary about Americans and their ideas about freedom of speech. But as we’ve just seen in Hong Kong, when it comes to sensitive political issues, China’s leaders are not in a mood to compromise.