LinkedIn Censors More Journalist Profiles in China, Suggests Self-Censorship as Solution

Using methods that include censoring posts, hiding or deleting profiles and proposing that users practice self-censorship, LinkedIn continues to cleanse its Chinese platform for the benefit of the CCP. This week, several Western journalists and academics took to Twitter to share notifications from LinkedIn stating that their profiles had been removed from the Chinese version of the site due to unspecified “prohibited content.” Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, a China reporter at Axios whose profile was recently censored, wrote a Twitter thread detailing the situation:

While this is not the first time LinkedIn has censored profiles in China, these recent notifications point to the company’s increasing potential to export China’s censorship demands beyond the Great Firewall. Allen-Ebrahimian drew attention to the fact that correspondence from LinkedIn clearly placed the onus on her to make her content available on the Chinese platform: “[…] the decision whether to update your profile is yours,” the message stated. As this would force her to delete the sensitive content on her own end, as opposed to merely having it removed from the Chinese version, she concluded, “This goes beyond China’s model of ‘internet sovereignty’ and imposes China’s censorship extraterritorially.” LinkedIn’s suggestions to self-censor resemble censorship messages from Weibo, which recommend that users “refrain from posting or forwarding similarly sensitive content…to avoid disruptions to the normal functioning of [their] account.” 

LinkedIn, the only major American social media company operating in China, has a history of censoring content deemed sensitive to the CCP, ever since it created a webpage for Chinese users in 2014. Immediately after the launch, it censored part of the profile activity of Bill Bishop, creator of the Sinocism newsletter, as well as some Hong Kong users. In early 2019, it censored CCP critics Peter Humphrey and Zhou Fengsuo. In March 2021, the Cyberspace Administration of China criticized LinkedIn for failing to sufficiently control political content, and forced the company to submit a self-evaluation report and suspend new user sign-ups for thirty days. To regain the government’s favor, an in-house censorship crusade ensued, whereby LinkedIn’s Chinese version blocked the accounts of dozens of individuals around the world, including journalists, researchers, and academics whose work relates to China.

As Allen-Ebrahimian mentioned in her Twitter thread, there are many unanswered questions surrounding LinkedIn’s motivations for this censorship. LinkedIn has not been transparent about whether it is censoring preemptively by its own initiative, or after specific requests from the Chinese government, or both. Deliberating these questions, the Hong Kong Free Press reported on LinkedIn’s vague response and eagerness to comply with Beijing’s orders:

When approached by HKFP, LinkedIn […] did not directly address what content was at fault on Allen-Ebrahimian’s account, or how profiles are censored. They also did not state which content may be forbidden. However, a spokesperson said: “We’re a global platform that respects the laws that apply to us, including adhering to Chinese government regulations for our localized version of LinkedIn in China. For members whose profile visibility is limited within China, their profiles are still visible across the rest of the globe where LinkedIn is available.”

LinkedIn did not clarify which Chinese law or regulations they were obeying.

According to its Transparency Report, LinkedIn declined two government data requests from China between July 1, 2020 and December 2020. However, it complied with 16 out of 18 data removal requests from Beijing in the first half of 2020, and 22 out of 24 requests in the latter half of that year. In all, it complied with 89 per cent of such requests. The report did not state which content was removed. [Source]

The public outcry in response to the latest round of censorship was swift. U.S. Senator Rick Scott sent a letter to the leadership of LinkedIn and its parent company Microsoft expressing his deep concern and demanding a detailed explanation. This follows another letter, sent to LinkedIn last week by U.S. Senator Jim Banks, that also criticized the company’s censorship practices.

PEN America issued a strong statement decrying LinkedIn’s state-influenced censorship

“It’s hard to conceive of any explanation for this action other than an American tech firm censoring its users at the apparent behest of the Chinese government,” said PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel. “This appears to be an alarming and unabashed capitulation to censorship from a company that claims to prize democracy and freedom of expression. If LinkedIn’s behavior is normalized, it sends a message to companies across the globe that it is business as usual to enforce Beijing’s censorship demands globally. This is a flashing red light that unless big tech firms like LinkedIn—owned by Microsoft—stand up to censorship, free speech worldwide will suffer.”  

“The effect of LinkedIn’s actions is to extend China’s net of censorship across national borders, reaching deep into free societies to chill and punish  criticism of Beijing,” Nossel continued. “We call on LinkedIn and Microsoft to clarify their actions, lift baseless account suspensions and affirm their commitment to upholding the speech rights of users everywhere.” [Source]

Nossel’s statement highlights the broader issue at stake: whether it is morally acceptable for Western companies to censor at the behest of the CCP in order to maintain access to the Chinese market. It has become increasingly difficult for businesses of all sizes, especially in the social media realm, to avoid pressure from Beijing. Some have given up and chosen one market over another. Others have attempted to toe the line, calculating that the benefit of collaborating with the CCP censorship apparatus outweighs the cost of criticism from Western free speech advocates. As Allen-Ebrahimian noted, civil society action against businesses may not be enough to protect free speech outside of China. 

The CCP’s ability to extend the reach of its censorship is facilitated by exploiting the asymmetry of global information flow. While Chinese social media sites remain closed off to Western free-speech advocates, Western social media sites are open to the Chinese government. This has allowed the CCP to wage disinformation campaigns on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and even use LinkedIn to recruit spies abroad

The mechanisms of CCP-driven censorship on LinkedIn and other Chinese platforms go beyond brute deletion of content. As Vincent Brussee at Merics explained, albeit before this year’s wave of censored profiles, the digital design of these platforms is an overlooked part of the information control apparatus

On LinkedIn’s Chinese app, for example, some features that are available in the international version are strategically disabled for being potentially sensitive. One might not attribute many of these “features” to political motivations but simply to choices made purely in the commercial interests of the platform. Yet closer scrutiny suggests these choices are not merely coincidental. Compared to the international version, LinkedIn China disabled the “groups” function, the news feed and does not allow users to upload videos or PDF and Word attachments.  The nature of these features indicates that this is for political reasons: the news feed is likely to contain political content, videos and attachments are technically more difficult to censor, and groups are the most effective tools to organize collective action. LinkedIn did not bother with censorship and risk a similar backlash to Zoom, it outright disabled these functions for Chinese users. [Source]

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