A View From China of the Craigslist Crackdowns
This morning, the founder and CEO of one of China's leading classifieds sites told me that he doesn't understand why Craigslist has been sending cease and desist letters to warn third parties off building on top of its data.
I met Jianshuo Wang of Baixing at his sunny office on the campus of Shanghai's historic Jiaotong University and asked him what he thought of the recent moves by Craigslist to thwart developers that have been using its data to create complementary services. Sites such as Mapskreig, CraigsPal, and PadMapper have all faced Craigslist's wrath recently, an issue that my colleague Michael Carney first highlighted two months ago and that the New York Times zoomed in on a couple of days ago.
In China, it's impossible to stop third-parties using content posted on Baixing, Wang said. So instead, he encourages it. "I think it's a very good way for the application developers – especially the mobile application developers – to hook into the system and make the listings available to others," he said.
But isn't he concerned that the content pilfering will hurt Baixing's business?
Short answer: no. For Wang, it's all about the users. "As long as it can help the users, I'm okay with it."
Baixing started life in 2005 under eBay with the name Kijiji, with Wang as the sole worker on the project. He grew the team, which today has 60 staffers, and in 2008 decided to spin it off as its own company. It has since raised three rounds of funding, led by GSR, Benchmark, and Tenaya respectively. (Wang won't disclose the amounts.) Wang had previously worked for Microsoft in Shanghai for six years after graduating with a degree in automation from Jiaotong.
Wang, an avid blogger who publishes in English on an almost daily basis, holds traditional ideals about the importance of the Internet. "We believe in the open Internet," he says. He was wearing a pink polo T-shirt, patterned shorts, and white Nike sports socks pulled up around his calves. "We believe information should flow freely."
That these words are coming out of the mouth of an entrepreneur who operates in China's heavily regulated Internet environment and not, say, Craig Newmark, is telling. Baixing, said Wang, won't be moving to shut down anyone who uses its data. "As long as it's used for a good cause, we're okay with it."
Baixing is similar to Craigslist, but it's also modeled on European and UK listings sites, such as Gumtree. It offers listings on the site for free, but if users want more exposure they can pay for promoted spots. Baixing also charges users who have more commercial intent – for instance, if a dealer wants to list more than three cars on a particular day. Its main competitors in China are Ganji.com and 58.com, which recently announced that it's trying to become a transactions platform.
China is notorious for copyright breaches and content stealing, but companies here merely factor that into their business plans. That's one of the chief reasons why online gaming is so strong here. Because of rampant piracy, console games would never have stood a chance. On the other hand, it's difficult and very expensive to replicate the infrastructure required to profit from copies of online games.
Baixing's approach, meanwhile, is more in line with the "It's going to happen, so deal with it" mindset that is common among entrepreneurs here. In many cases, that leads to faster micro-innovations and better services. That's why today the microblogging service Sina Weibo, which many Chinese Internet experts consider superior to Twitter, today looks nothing like it did when it started as a mere clone.
These lessons aren't directly applicable to Craigslist, which enjoys stronger IP protection under US law and different business challenges. But they do present an alternative way forward – one that remains consistent with the "information wants to be free" ethos to which so many Internet entrepreneurs once subscribed.