INTERNET: Tumblr Eyes China As Censors Watch

Bottom line: SNS operator Tumblr could quickly find its site blocked in China if it rolls out a Chinese-language edition targeting mainland users without taking formal steps to enter the country.

Tumblr eyes China

News that US social networking site (SNS) Tumblr is eying the China market looks intriguing, as it would come not long after professional networking site LinkedIn (NYSE: LNKD) entered the market and as industry titan Facebook (Nasdaq: FB) lobbies hard for its own Chinese presence. But what most caught my attention about this latest development was the somewhat humorous headline in one report noting that Tumblr is “still not blocked in China”.

Of course the implication is that once Tumblr formally launches a Chinese language edition of its popular blogging and SNS service, it could very easily find its site blocked by China’s Internet police.

All of this draws attention to an increasingly apparent but unspoken rule that says close cooperation with Chinese regulators, and receipt of their formal approval, is necessary for any major off-shore Internet firm that wants to attract mainland Chinese users. Failure to receive such approval, and trying to attract users while operating offshore, seems almost destined to result in the blockage of a company’s website.

All that said, let’s zoom in on the latest reports that say Tumblr is quietly preparing a Chinese language version of its service that will make it available to users on the mainland. (English article) It’s important to note that China uses a slightly different, simplified writing system from that used in Hong Kong and Taiwan, which have much more open Internet environments. But in this case, the report points out that several users in China have been invited to join a beta test for the new interface, implying that a version of the service for mainland web surfers is at least part of the new Chinese-language edition.

Tumblr is currently available in 13 different languages, including Korean and Japanese here in Asia. The site isn’t blocked here in China, though that could change overnight if it moves ahead and tries to attract large numbers of Chinese users. SNS giants Facebook and Twitter (NYSE: TWTR) learned that lesson the hard way in 2009, when both were abruptly blocked in China with no reason given.

Other blogging sites that are now blocked in China include WordPress and Blogger, and the websites of news services Bloomberg and the New York Times (NYSE: NYT) have been blocked for more than 2 years. Leading video site YouTube is also blocked, and the search site and email services operated by Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), which has a contentious relationship with Beijing, have also been highly limited in recent months.

LinkedIn blazed a relatively new path when it formally opened in China about a year ago, after close consultation with Beijing and after issuing a major disclaimer to western audiences about its decision to proceed into the tightly controlled market. (previous post) Facebook is trying to follow down a similar path, which is being blazed by co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, who has made a several trips to Beijing and appears to be getting a warm reception from Chinese Internet regulators. (previous post)

So, what does all this mean for Tumblr, and other SNS and similar foreign Internet firms that might be considering a move into China? We have no way to know what Tumblr is doing behind the scenes, as the reports don’t mention any outreach to Beijing or plans for a Chinese office. But if it’s really serious about keeping its site accessible in China it should be holding concurrent meetings with Beijing regulators to keep them informed of its intentions, and also establish a formal presence in the country.

Twitter has said in the past that China isn’t a place where it can do business, but then its CEO made a high-profile visit to Shanghai last year that ended up grabbing global headlines. That move underscored the reality that China, with nearly 1 billion Internet users, is simply too big for any global web firm to ignore. But it’s also a market that requires special care due to its strict self-censorship rules. Accordingly, Tumblr would be wise to quickly establish a relationship with Beijing if it wants to avoid seeing its site blocked after the roll-out of a Chinese-language edition.

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