LinkedIn announced that it will no longer host social media and content sharing in China. Instead, it’s China-only app will be a job-board site. This comes after LinkedIn received criticism for blocking certain researcher profiles in China as well as human rights advocates and journalists who write on China.
LinkedIn, which was bought by Microsoft in 2016, was one of the only U.S.-based social media outlets still operating within China. Twitter, Facebook (including Instagram, WhatsApp), and YouTube (owned by Alphabet, Inc.) are banned. Google (also owned by Alphabet, Inc.) left in 2010. Signal and Clubhouse were banned in 2021. Other apps, such as TikTok (owned by ByteDance, Inc.) have their own Chinese version that complies with censors and data regulators.
As far as social media outlets go, LinkedIn is relatively bland. It’s a resume site where most users share announcements about the organizations they work with, articles they’ve written, or products they have produced. Users can give each other props and share recommendations. The content is relatively tame compared to other social medial platforms, although one of the more controversial scandals involved Chinese state-backed entities recruiting U.S. LinkedIn users with military or government ties to spy for China.
LinkedIn’s Attempts at Appeasing Censors Were Not Enough
In March 2021, LinkedIn suspended the creation of new profiles after the Cyberspace Administration of China, China’s internet regulator, said the platform had thirty days to address security issues. Those “security issues” meant that the platform did not adequately censor political content. The Wall Street Journal reports that LinkedIn had received 42 requests from Chinese regulators last year to take down content. This is the most requests LinkedIn had received from any company.
In May 2021, Microsoft was dinged by China’s internet regulators for “improper data collection.” LinkedIn and Bing were among the 105 apps listed by regulators, and Microsoft was the only foreign company whose apps were on the list. The Chinese government has placed stringent rules on how foreign companies can collect and store data from users living in China.
Then in June 2021, LinkedIn blocked certain researchers’ and activists’ profiles from being viewed in China. The researchers and activists were not told specifically what content was offensive.
In September 2021, Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, author and China correspondent for Axios, reported that she, along with journalist Melissa Chan, received a notification that their accounts were suspended in China for security reasons, but the notification did not specify what the problematic content was on their profiles. Among the items listed on Allen-Ebrahimian’s profile is her work with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists on leaked Chinese government documents outlining Xinjiang’s mass internment camps.
To watch an interview with Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian about LinkedIn’s censorship, please click here.
Allen-Ebrahimian notes that this is the first time she received a notification from LinkedIn directly. In the past, if she had received a notification for her internet content in China, it was sent from the Chinese government. This time, however, it was from a U.S.-based company. Furthermore, LinkedIn offered to help her edit the content on her profile so it would be accessible in China. Allen-Ebrahimian says that this amounted to censoring her own profile so that the content, which appeared in all locations, including the United States, appeased the Chinese censors.
In September, PEN American Center, Inc., an international free speech organization for writers, objected to LinkedIn’s censorship of journalists, academics, and other writers and said Microsoft’s actions risk setting a precedent for other technology companies. In a press release, the organization said LinkedIn is “capitulating to state-influenced censorship.”
PEN America’s CEO Suzanne Nossel said,
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…
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…PEN America Press Release, “PEN America Decries LinkedIn’s Apparent State-Influenced Censorship,” September 29, 2021
The bad press, increasingly stringent regulatory environment, and the relatively small amount of revenue Microsoft receives from Chinese LinkedIn users, led to LinkedIn deciding it will no longer operate content sharing or social media in China.
LinkedIn’s announcement, posted on its blog, explained the platform’s original intentions when it entered the China market in 2014:
We recognized that operating a localized version of LinkedIn in China would mean adherence to requirements of the Chinese government on Internet platforms. While we strongly support freedom of expression, we took this approach in order to create value for our members in China and around the world. (Emphasis added)Mohak Shroff, “China: Sunset of Localized Version of LinkedIn and Launch of New InJobs App Later This Year” at LinkedIn Official Blog, October 14, 2021
But, as the blog post goes on to say, the company has faced “a significantly more challenging operating environment and greater compliance requirements.” In China, LinkedIn’s announcement about censorship was itself censored, omitting the phrases “freedom of expression” and “requirements of the Chinese government.”
China continues to become more and more insulated from global interaction. Protocol’s executive director, David Wertime says, now that LinkedIn is gone, the list of U.S. social networks trying to succeed in China has shrunk to zero, and it will likely be years before another one tries to enter the Chinese market.
If the blasé business world of LinkedIn cannot pass the Cyberspace Administration of China’s rules, then what platform can? Microsoft still has a presence in China through Microsoft Teams, Windows operating system, and Bing, but some analysts wonder how long that will last. With China’s new data laws, the Chinese government will either regulate its way into controlling all internet traffic within the country or push any non-compliant companies out until State-backed entities are the only ones left.