A major challenge for global internet companies is figuring how to deal with different rules and regulations within different countries. This has proven especially difficult for internet companies looking to operate in China — a country in which many of the most popular global websites are blocked.
In 2015, there was an article highlighting how companies like Evernote and LinkedIn had avoided getting blocked in China, mainly by complying with the Chinese government’s demands that they moderate certain content. In that article, LinkedIn’s then-CEO Jeff Weiner noted:
“We’re expecting there will be requests to filter content,” he said. “We are strongly in support of freedom of expression and we are opposed to censorship,” he said, but “that’s going to be necessary for us to achieve the kind of scale that we’d like to be able to deliver to our membership.”
Swedish journalist Jojje Olsson tweeted the article when it came out. Six years later LinkedIn informed Olsson that his own LinkedIn profile would no longer be available in China after referencing the Tiananmen square massacre in his profile.
In Olsson’s tweet, he explains that his LinkedIn profile mentions that for his degree, he wrote an essay about the Tiananmen Square massacre. It quickly became clear that LinkedIn was in the process of blocking access to multiple journalists’ and academics’ accounts in China, including CNN Beijing bureau chief Steve Jiang and the editor-in-chief of the Taiwan Sentinel, J. Michael Cole. The Wall Street Journal found at least 10 other LinkedIn accounts that were blocked in China around the same time, and highlighted that LinkedIn officials were reprimanded in March of 2021 for keeping certain accounts available in China.
China’s internet regulator summoned LinkedIn officials in March to tell them to better regulate its content, according to people familiar with the matter. The social-networking site was given 30 days to clean up the content and promised to better regulate its site going forward, the people said.
Shortly after, LinkedIn said in a statement on its website that it would be pausing new member sign-ups as the platform worked “to ensure we remain in compliance with local law.” — Liza Lin, Wall Street Journal
The NY Times report on that meeting noted that the 30-day pause on sign-ups was part of what Chinese officials ordered.
The users whose profiles were blocked received a notice from Linkedin about the block, saying “We will work with you to minimize the impact and can review your profile’s accessibility within China if you update the relevant sections of the profiles,” but also notes “the decision whether to update your profile is yours.” The notice also includes this paragraph:
While we strongly support freedom of expression, we recognized when we launched that we would need to adhere to the requirements of the Chinese government in order to operate in China. As a reminder, your profile will remain viewable throughout the rest of the countries in which LinkedIn is available.
It appears that LinkedIn was also directly removing some specific content as well. Former journalist Peter Humphrey told Bloomberg News that LinkedIn informed him that it had completely removed certain comments he made criticizing the Chinese government.
- How important is it to remain accessible in China?
- What compromises are worth making to remain accessible in China or other countries?
- If the company agrees to take down, or block access to, certain content to appease government demands, how should those decisions be communicated to impacted users?
- Under what conditions, if any, will the company push back on overbroad demands to block content in China?
- Is a censored, but still mostly available, US-based service better to be available than to have the entire service blocked in China?
- Local regulations differ across every country. What kind of framework should a company use to determine where they draw the line, and what compromises they will agree to?
Since the initial flurry of notices that got attention from May through July of 2021, it appears that even more journalists have found their profiles blocked in China. In September, Sophia Yan, the China correspondent for the UK’s Telegraph, noted that her LinkedIn profile was now blocked in China. In replying to Yan’s tweet, Liza Lin, the Wall Street Journal’s China correspondent, and author of the article quoted earlier discussing LinkedIn officials being reprimanded by Chinese officials, noted that she too had her profile blocked in China.
LinkedIn, for its part, has continued to make similar statements throughout, saying that it supports the principles of free speech but that in order to continue operating in China, it is required by the government to block access to these accounts.
Written by The Copia Institute, September 2021