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LinkedIn Blocks Some User Profiles in China

September 30, 2021

Journalists who cover China have been receiving notices from the networking site LinkedIn, informing them that their profiles are no longer accessible in China.

In a message to Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, LinkedIn said the block was in place because of “prohibited content” in the summary section of her profile page.

The journalist covers China for the news website Axios.

Allen-Ebrahimian, who shared a copy of the message with VOA, said LinkedIn did not state what posts or details on her profile were deemed prohibited.

When the journalist shared details of the message on her Twitter feed on Tuesday, other journalists and writers said they had received similar notices.

Melissa Chan, a reporter with German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle, said she also received a message on Tuesday, with LinkedIn saying her profile had been blocked because of “prohibited content located in the Publication section.”

And author Greg Bruno said on Twitter that his LinkedIn profile had also been blocked. In a tweet, he said the only item listed under publications on his profile was his book on Tibet, Blessings from Beijing: Inside China’s Soft-Power War on Tibet.

In its messages to the journalists, LinkedIn said it would try to minimize the impact of the block and that it would review the profiles if the journalists updated or revised the posted content.

In a statement to VOA, LinkedIn defended its actions, saying that as a global platform it “respects the laws that apply to us, including adhering to Chinese government regulations for our localized version of LinkedIn in China.”

Profiles that have been limited in China are still “visible across the rest of the globe,” LinkedIn said.

However, Allen-Ebrahimian said that the block would make it harder for her to report.

Neither China’s internet regulator nor its embassy in Washington responded to VOA’s requests for comment.

Local laws

LinkedIn, which says it has over 774 million users in over 200 countries, launched a version of its site in China in 2014.

It is one of the few Western social media platforms allowed to operate in the country, where it has an estimated 45 million users.

But the professional networking site has run into issues with China’s internet regulators. The New York Times reported in March 2021 that the regulator ordered LinkedIn to suspend new sign-ups for 30 days over content deemed political.

"The Chinese government is shaping the behavior of companies through clearly enforced laws and regulations,” Axios' Allen-Ebrahimian told VOA via email.

“The only way for democratic countries to push back and preserve freedom of speech is by responding in kind -- passing and enforcing laws and regulations that incentivize companies to stop complying with Chinese government censorship laws,” she said.

Western companies often say they respect free expression, Angeli Datt, a senior research analyst for China at Freedom House, told VOA. “But their actions show a disregard for the rights of Chinese users to seek and receive information and for individuals globally to speak or share information about China.”

Lack of clarity

In its notices to the journalists, LinkedIn did not specify what content was prohibited, pointing only to the section where it appeared.

the profile for Allen-Ebrahimian, viewed by VOA, includes her role as lead reporter on the China Cables project, which examined leaked government files related to internment camps in the Xinjiang region, and an investigation in 2020 into a suspected Chinese intelligence operative in California.

Chan, from Deutsche Welle, said on Twitter that she believed her block was related to coverage of Uyghurs and reporting on democracy. Her profile includes links and descriptions of her China coverage.

In June, LinkedIn issued similar notices to a Swedish writer and photographer Jojje Olsson, who had included an essay on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement under the education section of his profile, and J. Michael Cole, a Global Taiwan Institute fellow.

Zhou Fengsuo, the founder of rights group Humanitarian China and a student leader during the Tiananmen Square protests, described the blocks as outrageous.

“China’s digital totalitarianism is not just confined within the borders of China, but companies in other places of the world also follow Beijing’s orders. It’s unacceptable,” he told VOA in a phone interview.

Zhou’s own LinkedIn account was blocked briefly in China in January 2019. LinkedIn said at the time that it was an error.

The rights activist said that rules on complying with local laws were vague.

“There are no rules in terms of [Communist Party] censorship. It’s very arbitrary,” he said. “We also want to know what those applicable laws are, if there’s any, and in what ways Beijing pressures these multinational companies.

“I think it’s all in the dark and at the discretion of the police,” he said.

Content removal and blocked websites were cited by Freedom House this month when it described China as the “worst abuser of internet freedoms” for the seventh year.

Freedom on the Net, the group’s annual analysis of digital rights, found that authorities regularly push social media companies to “police” content.

Datt told VOA that notices like those LinkedIn issued Tuesday were not new but “they represent increased action by Western companies to censor users globally who talk about or work on China on behalf of the Chinese government.”

“The complicity of Western tech companies in censorship demonstrates how the [Communist Party] is expanding its internet controls system overseas by getting private companies to do it for them,” she said.

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