SAN FRANCISCO -- LinkedIn is launching a Chinese language website to expand its presence in China, which boasts the world's largest Internet population.
The Mountain View, Calif., company is hoping the website, which uses simplified Chinese characters, will bring 140 million new Chinese professionals to the networking service.
LinkedIn currently has 4 million users in China, where it has a website in English and mobile app in Chinese. When it officially begins operating in China, it will be the only major social network with a presence there.
“Our mission is to connect the world’s professionals and create greater economic opportunity — and this is a significant step towards achieving that goal,” Derek Shen, LinkedIn’s president of China, wrote in a blog post.
While China has a wealth of competitors to Facebook and Twitter, it has yet to give rise to a major rival to LinkedIn.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, LinkedIn Chief Executive Jeff Weiner said the company had been working on the Chinese language website for nearly two years. He said his company wrestled with how to handle the hot potato in China: government censorship of the Internet.
“We’re expecting there will be requests to filter content,” Weiner told the newspaper. “We are strongly in support of freedom of expression and we are opposed to censorship,” he said, but “that’s going to be necessary for us to achieve the kind of scale that we’d like to be able to deliver to our membership.”
The move sets LinkedIn apart from several other major U.S. Internet companies, such as Google, that have chosen to limit activity in China because of the censorship and cyberattacks.
But LinkedIn has a powerful incentive. Weiner said 1 of every 5 knowledge workers in the world hails from China.
Operating in China requires a license from the government. As a condition of that license, LinkedIn will have to store information on Chinese nationals in China and also will have to filter content as required by law in China, a person familiar with the situation but not authorized to discuss it publicly said.
That person said LinkedIn would not store information on non Chinese users in China.
LinkedIn will evaluate each request to censor or turn over information on a case by case basis as it does in countries around the world “in a way that is consistent with our values to preserve the privacy and security of members and is consistent with internationally recognized laws and standards," he said.
As a professional networking service, not a more general service such as Facebook and Twitter, LinkedIn may have a shot at operating in China, said Rebecca MacKinnon, China expert and human rights activist with New America Foundation.
But, MacKinnon said, "I think it's going to be difficult."
"If China can't even given LinkedIn enough breathing room to operate in China, that would be a very unfortunate signal for a government to send its professionals about its priorities," MacKinnon said. "I hope the Chinese government will not drive Linkedin out and will take a reasonable approach here."
But MacKinnon noted that the demands of the Chinese government on Google, which went into China with great optimism, increased over time.
"Nothing ever goes as planned in China," she said. "This is clearly a big experiment."