LinkedIn Caves Again, Blocks US Journalists' Accounts In China

from the block-enough-accounts-and-it's-really-not-a-network,-is-it dept

LinkedIn -- the business-oriented social media platform owned by Microsoft -- has spent the last few years increasing its compliance with the Chinese government's demands for censorship. A couple of years back, the network drew heat for not only blocking accounts of Chinese pro-democracy activists but also critics of the government located elsewhere in the world.

The blocking only occurred in China, but that was enough to cause PR trouble for LinkedIn, which restored some of the accounts following some deserved backlash. The Chinese government didn't care much for LinkedIn's temporary capitulations so it turned up the heat. After failing to block enough content, the Chinese government ordered LinkedIn's local office to perform a self-audit and report on its findings to the country's internet regulator. It was also blocked from signing up any new Chinese citizens for 30 days.

The pressure appears to have worked. China is again asking for censorship of voices it doesn't like. And, again, LinkedIn is complying. Here's the report from Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian of Axios, who was one of those targeted by the latest round of account blocking.

LinkedIn blocked the profiles of several U.S. journalists from the company's China-based platform this week, citing "prohibited content." My account was one of the profiles affected.

[...]

LinkedIn customer service sent me an email on Sept. 27 stating that, due to "prohibited content" in the summary section of my profile, the company was blocking my profile from being viewable in China.

  • Melissa Chan, a former China correspondent who now works as a journalist in Berlin, posted on Twitter that she had received a similar email on Sept. 28.

  • Greg Bruno, the author of a book about China's soft-power push against Tibetans, also posted on Twitter on Sept. 28 that he had received an email from LinkedIn. It cited the "publications" section of his profile, in which the only publication listed is his book.

The Chinese government's ability to block foreign journalists from appearing on the local version of LinkedIn has drawn more attention to its censorship practices. But that's pretty much the thing that China does all the time, so it's hardly surprising it would seek to keep its citizens from interacting with people it doesn't approve of.

What's more disturbing is Microsoft/LinkedIn's compliance, which has drawn the attention of Senator Rick Scott, who is now asking the company to explain why it's helping China with its censorship.

The letter [PDF] from Scott makes some good points, but makes some of those points badly.

The censorship of these journalists raises serious questions about Microsoft’s intentions and its commitment to standing up against Communist China’s horrific human rights abuses and repeated attacks against democracy. These acts of censorship by your company, and the apparent broader Microsoft censorship policy of, “offering a localized version of LinkedIn in China,” is gross appeasement and an act of submission to Communist China.

That's a good point. The follow-up is a bit more self-serving.

While Microsoft is censoring journalists abroad, it is actively spreading misinformation domestically. In March 2021, Microsoft openly decried an election security law passed by the Georgia legislature which made it easier for Georgia residents to vote while reducing the possibility of fraud.

Meanwhile, your company has been silent on Communist China rigging its elections and General Secretary Xi declaring himself ruler for life. In the face of these true assaults on democracy, Microsoft is openly suppressing those who try to expose Xi’s authoritarian rule.

The election security law is really about voter suppression, something Rick Scott certainly isn't going to publicly acknowledge. This is some useless point scoring thrown in to make it appear Microsoft's opposition to this bill is on par with its acquiescence to authoritarian rulers in another part of the world.

Here's what the supposedly pro-democracy "election security" bill passed in Georgia actually does:

In Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp just signed into law a bill that adds many obstacles to voting, including reducing the number of ballot boxes, shrinking the window for early voting, adding additional photo ID requirements, and allowing state officials to circumvent the work of county election officials if they don’t like the outcomes they are seeing. The Georgia bill even goes so far as to make it illegal for outside groups to give water or food to voters stuck in long lines.

It's not about security. It's about making democracy accessible to those with the most resources and expendable time. So, that's some bullshit and Scott would have been better off sticking to chastising LinkedIn for carrying the Chinese government's censorship water rather than pretending his associates in Georgia are all about that democracy.

Scott does ask some good questions, though, which hopefully will generate some explanation for LinkedIn's decision to engage in proxy censorship to maintain access to a sizable number of Chinese users.

Is censorship of user views that are not aligned with the Chinese Communist Party a function of LinkedIn’s “localized version” of its platform in China?

How many accounts has LinkedIn censored because of content the Chinese Communist Party disliked, or that LinkedIn feared might upset Chinese Communist Party authorities?

Why does Microsoft choose to weigh in on domestic political matters, but stay silent on foreign political matters, and what is its decision-making process for speaking on political matters?

The last question is still a good one, even though Scott undercut this point earlier by claiming a voter suppression bill was actually an election security bill. And it could be that LinkedIn does weigh in on local issues in China. It's just that the Chinese government doesn't care what LinkedIn thinks and has offered the platform the option of complying or leaving.

So far, the answer is still compliance. And that's really not an acceptable tradeoff. American companies shouldn't willingly do business with authoritarians. Any compliance only affirms that the party holding the real power is the political party issuing the orders. Demands for censorship will only increase. And opening a local office pretty much guarantees the government will start demanding full access to Chinese residents' data and communications. If you cave on the easier stuff, you've got nothing left to stand on when they come for the rest of it.

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Filed Under: censorship, china, content moderation, journalism
Companies: linkedin, microsoft


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  1. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 13 Oct 2021 @ 4:17pm

    'Don't torch property!' yelled the arsonist

    'How dare you help an oppressive foreign government silence those that they don't like, that's our shtick!'

    As much as it's concerning when a US company is helping a government silence dissent it kinda undercuts the message when the one complaining is a big fan of that when it comes to people they don't like.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Oct 2021 @ 5:22pm

    linkedin is a private company. they can decide to moderate their content however they like.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 13 Oct 2021 @ 5:28pm

    Just because you can doesn't always mean you should

    ... and? They're free to moderate as they want and everyone else is free to call them out on it if they think the company screwed up and made a stupid decision.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Oct 2021 @ 6:12pm

    I wouldn't really call following the laws for the country you are working in caving.

    You'd have a point if they'd blocked them worldwide however they only appear to have blocked them in China where Chinese not US law applies.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Oct 2021 @ 6:38pm

    As bad as this looks on paper, this is the price of trying to make the internet a global community.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Oct 2021 @ 8:35pm

    Re: Just because you can doesn't always mean you should

    and, people are also free to call them out for committing actual censorship at government behest.

    also - a membner of a different government ramping up to demand-y level noises is on the verge of censorship, even if some of the questions are good.

    also - not sure what choices Linked-In really has in these situations, besides not doing business in China, and getting local employees revoked by the government. (Although skipping doing business there before the inevitable situation occurrs where some employees end up under threat is not a thing i would complain about.)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Oct 2021 @ 1:07am

    Re: Re: Just because you can doesn't always mean you should

    a private company cannot censor anything, duh. They are free to host whatever content they want. Deleted users can just move somewhere else.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. icon
    Jeroen Hellingman (profile), 14 Oct 2021 @ 2:06am

    Basically, I think LinkedIn has two options 1.) Block the accounts, or 2.) leave the Chinese market.

    Given the current behavior of China with regard to human rights and international aggression, I think option 2 becomes more reasonable by the day.

    If the a country implements a law forbidding compliance with these Chinese laws, their options will simply be reduced to only option 2. If you want to do that, such a law should be consistent, in applying to all companies, which no western country can do at this time, due to a far too large dependence on (cheap, but neo-colonialism and slavery attached) labor and a near monopoly on certain rare natural resources. To resolve this issue, ending the dependency on cheap labor and affected natural resources is of the highest urgency.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Oct 2021 @ 3:37am

    Re: Just because you can doesn't always mean you should

    But the effectiveness of that calling out is greatly diminished when done by people who, on the other hand, are actively demanding the same treatment for speech and speakers they don't like.

    A lot of the moderation debate has devolved into a mess of often mutually-exclusive interests wanting speech they like promoted and speech they don't like suppressed. Everyone thinking their opinions should win over everyone else's, because they are theirs, and therefore better. It's a cognitive trap leading to supporting the idea that someone should be aggressively controlling all public (and sometimes even private) conversation in the misguided belief that the someone would make decisions they agree with.

    It's why free speech used to be such a powerful concept. Because people knew and should know again that the powers that be are not going to be consistently on their side.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. icon
    BG (profile), 14 Oct 2021 @ 3:48am

    Re: Re: Re: Just because you can doesn't always mean you should

    When they are moderating on behalf of a state or state agency, and it's not due to regulatory/legal requirements, please explain how that is not censorship?

    I'm genuinely curious if such a situation can exist but still can be objectively considered as moderation.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Oct 2021 @ 6:24am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Just because you can doesn't always mean you sho

    Very simple. A government can censor, a private company cannot. It is down to the very definition of censorship. LinkedIn is not censoring anything, they are just taking a decision on hosting some content or not. This is their own decision and it is separate from the government. They are free to kick out all of the journalists in the world from their network today, if they decide so - and still it would not be censorship. These journalists can all move to different platforms.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. icon
    nasch (profile), 14 Oct 2021 @ 7:26am

    Two options

    They can comply, or pull out of China and have the app blocked completely. Would it help anyone for LinkedIn to just not be available there?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Oct 2021 @ 8:35am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Just because you can doesn't always mean you

    When the government tells a private company to remove things, it is censorship, as it is the government deciding on content, not the company.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Oct 2021 @ 8:47am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Just because you can doesn't always mean

    exactly, the chinese govt is censoring speech. we all know that. Linkedin is doing business, as any other company, and it is not censoring anything. If the Chinese government outlaws these journalists, they have nowhere to go. if Linkedin deplatforms them, they can just move to another network. Linkedin cannot censor anyone, by definition. Linkedin can only choose to host some content or not on their private servers, and follow this or that particular law, advice, or whatever they want to.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Oct 2021 @ 8:58am

    "Microsoft shutting down LinkedIn in China"

    https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-58911297

    (but will be providing a replacement Jobs [1] service with no social aspect, which probably serves the Chinese Govt even better)

    [1] Inset inappropriate Apple joke here

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 14 Oct 2021 @ 12:16pm

    Sacrificing the minority for the sake of the majority

    By that argument the chinese government or any other oppressive government would be granted free reign to demand almost anything of companies offering their product/service in those countries.

    'You either block and remove the accounts of those spouting blasphemy or you shut down entirely.'

    'You either block or remove the accounts of those filthy deviants(read: anyone not completely heterosexual) or you shut down entirely.'

    'You either block or remove the accounts of those agitating against the state(read: anyone not fans of the current government) or you shut down entirely.'

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. icon
    nasch (profile), 14 Oct 2021 @ 1:05pm

    Re: Sacrificing the minority for the sake of the majority

    By that argument the chinese government or any other oppressive government would be granted free reign

    It's not an argument, it's a fact. Those are their two options. And it is also a fact that oppressive governments can demand anything of companies operating in their borders. The companies can comply, or not do business there. The question is, on a case by case basis, which is worse? Apparently MS has decided it can no longer comply, and is pulling out. So now there is no LinkedIn in China except by using a VPN. Is that better? I don't know.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. icon
    BG (profile), 15 Oct 2021 @ 3:14am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Just because you can doesn't always

    ... and now you're just wilfully misinterpreting the situation or trying to separate the demand a government made from the directly corresponding reactions of a company to the demand in order to create a hollow "moderation" leg to stand on and claim that the company is not censoring.

    The best case scenario if you want to go down that road is the the company is facilitating censorship, or engaging with censorship. Again, I ask please provide an example to support your position. I can't see one myself but am curious if such a situation could exist.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Oct 2021 @ 12:46pm

    Re: 'Don't torch property!' yelled the arsonist

    Quintessential oppressive governments include the U.S.A. and most of if not all of Europe.

    China's censorship has practicality to it, it's the single biggest communist country, which so far has risen and maintained their status as an economic power. We know how the U.S. likes to employ propaganda, via hollywood movies, T.V. shows, gullible and in most cases stupendously ignorant reporting can get filtered through outlets like global news media across the world from other capitalist nations do the heavy lifting of regurgitating these bullshit narratives.

    I mean the U.S. alongside some European collaborators just got done demolishing some majority Arabic muslim countries to dust. They immediately turned their heels to push a genocide narrative in Xinjiang, which funny enough has had to be walked all the way back in the exact media outlets that were the main drivers of the narrative.

    Back to China, most citizens can purchase and use a VPN to access outside content, they even criticize the CPC publicly without being tortured or subject to extraordinary renditions cough USA cough. If for one day they decided to turn off the firewall, and let the masses from China opine on the news don't think that for one second they are going to agree with your viewpoint about what is or isn't democracy.

    To some people abolishing poverty goes above letting racists spew their vitriol against minorities, while that may not be the case for you in the same vein don't try to push this European liberal (as in enlightenment values) bullshit view on to others. Voltaire and the other enlightened assholes only thought of these ideals for themselves and thought it wouldn't extend to the "others", same thing with the founding idiots of America. They wanted liberty and the ability to oppose tyranny, while maintaining slavery, managing a real active genocide while simultaneously subjugating that entire population.

    This goes without saying in recent years it being the main funder and cheerleader of damn near every single socialist government being overthrown because it didn't align with their view on how things should be done. (For those that want to get cute and make a tinfoil hat reference thankfully sometimes the U.S. trips up and has to actually abide by it's state ideals and release C.I.A. documents that confirm a lot of what's happened.)

    Suffice to say most people are only bitching about China, because they are taking steps to protect themselves which to you lacking context or possibly not giving a shit about the operating conditions, looks like outright oppression. There is plenty of oppression in the west that doesn't get that same kind of energy or thought put to it. You can try to reconcile those contradictions in a honest manner one day if you really cared .

    However in the eyes of most of the Western hemisphere what we have is endemic, what China has is a problem that can be fixed. (I just gotta say that framing is racist as fuck, and has the same connotations that "aliens built the pyramids" because no white people lived in Egypt at that time.)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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