LinkedIn blocks profiles containing “prohibited information” from view in China

In recent weeks, several journalists and researchers focusing on China have been informed by LinkedIn that since their profiles contain prohibited content, the social media platform will block their profiles in China. Some of those affected think this is an example that once businesses begin to comply with China’s censorship policies, there will be no turning back for them.

Several journalists and researchers in China and Taiwan have been informed by LinkedIn that their profiles have been blocked from view in China since they contain “prohibited content.”

According to screenshots shared by Canadian think tank analyst J Michael Cole earlier this month, LinkedIn claimed that there was prohibited content present in the Publication section of his profile, so his profile, public activity, comments, and items he shares will no longer be viewable in China.

“We will work with you to minimize the impact and can review your profile’s accessibility within China if you update the Publication section of your profile,” LinkedIn wrote in the e-mail. “But the decision whether to update your profile is yours.”

Cole says he has written a series of books on cross-Strait relations and his positions on the subject are well known, which tends to be in favor of Taiwan and democracy. He thinks these might be some of the reasons why LinkedIn decides to block his profile in China.

Additionally, Swedish journalist Jojje Olsson also shared a screenshot of a message from Linkedin, claiming that his profile has also been blocked from view in China due to prohibited information in the education section of his profile.

Olsson thinks LinkedIn may be referring to a degree essay about the Tiananmen Square Massacre that he wrote when he was pursuing a degree in modern Chinese history. “This is an attempt by LinkedIn to get its users to exercise self-censorship,” he said. “In my case, LinkedIn wants me to censor not my posts or my comments, but my own academic background in order to make full use of their services.”

CNN journalist in Beijing Steven Jiang also shared a screenshot of the message from LinkedIn, telling him that there is prohibited content in the Honors and Awards section of his profile. He wrote on Twitter that it could be the Emmy-nominated news documentary on Xinjiang that he had produced.

No turning back for LinkedIn in China?

In an e-mail response, LinkedIn said their goal in China is to connect Chinese professional people with each other, and they have long recognized that offering a localized version of LinkedIn in China would likely mean adherence to censorship requirements of the Chinese government on Internet platforms.

“We are strongly in support of freedom of expression,” the spokesperson wrote. “But, as we said at the time of our launch in February 2014, it’s clear to us that in order to create value for our members in China and around the world, we will need to implement the Chinese government’s restrictions on content, when and to the extent required.”

Cole thinks LinkedIn’s move to block their profile from view in China is an admission that they are compelled to do so due to the strict information control in China. “I don’t think firms should put themselves in such a position, to begin with, but that they did, back in 2014, and now they’re in a very difficult situation, one that will have a reputational cost for their company,” he said.

Olsson says LinkedIn’s move shows that they are scared about losing access to the Chinese market, so they are willing to do things that appease the Chinese government. “ It also goes against a recent trend where many actors have actually started to take a stance against Beijing’s increasing repression,” he said.

Cole says for businesses that have signed agreements with Beijing that stipulate censorship, it will be hard for them to break their vows of compliance. He highlights the fact that private companies are profit-seeking entities and China is a very alluring market.

“My sense is that democratic governments worldwide need to step in so that firms seeking market access in China will not be alone in their negotiations with the Chinese authorities,” he said.

Olsson thinks other businesses should realize through LinkedIn’s case that once they start to comply with Beijing’s censorship regulations, there will be no turning back for them. “The censorship demands will only increase over time,” he said.

This piece was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.