FFOREIGN INTERNET companies are struggling in China. To stop the spread of ideas it deems dangerous, the Communist Party blocked YouTube’s video-sharing site, Facebook’s social network, and Twitter’s microblog in 2009. A year later, Google brutally shut down its Chinese search engine after a dispute with censorship. Chinese who wish to access Western social media must do so through virtual private networks, which is capricious and may be illegal.
An exception to this strict rule is LinkedIn. The Chinese government tolerates the professional network, perhaps because most people use it to search for jobs and business contacts, not to talk about democracy. The number of Chinese LinkedIn users has grown rapidly since Microsoft bought it in 2016, reaching 53 million. They account for around 7% of LinkedIn’s global total, up from 1.4% in 2014. Microsoft is not disclosing China’s contribution to LinkedIn’s revenue, which reached $ 8 billion in 2020. Still, the software giant may present it as a rare western social network. -Gain in a network in a market of nearly a billion Internet users.
But operating in a dictatorship presents tricky choices for a platform designed for the exchange of ideas, as well as business cards. To comply with Chinese laws, LinkedIn must limit what users can post. Since March, when China’s cyberspace regulator criticized its lax controls, it seems to have stepped up those efforts. Many users have been informed that their profiles and activities are not displayed in China. Taiwan-based academic J. Michael Cole recently discovered that his profile was blocked there. LinkedIn indicated the presence of sensitive content in the “publications” section of its profile but did not give further details. Mr Cole believes it might have something to do with references to books he wrote about Taiwan, which China claims to be part of its territory.
Mr. Cole’s experience points to a conundrum for LinkedIn. Like other social media that Beijing tolerates, it must not allow certain words to appear on its service. But the rules are blurry, even for large internet platforms. If LinkedIn has received a list of regulators, or offers an internal one, it does not disclose it. Liu Dongshu, China Internet Policy Specialist at the City University of Hong Kong, believes LinkedIn likely doesn’t have such a list, but instead censors some content that the Chinese government may potentially find objectionable on a case-by-case basis. to avoid trouble. This leaves LinkedIn users in a position similar to that of the social network itself: without explicit rules on what they can and cannot post in China, they are, like Mr. Cole, left out. This, in turn, can lead to self-censorship.
LinkedIn says it has “an obligation to obey the laws that apply to us, including to adhere to Chinese government regulations.” Asked by The Economist to quote the regulations that require it to block user profiles, the spokesperson for LinkedIn did not respond. Microsoft did not respond to a request for comment.
All foreign companies face difficult compromises in China, which is both a large market and an autocracy. Those with large Chinese operations tend to line up. Apple, which manufactures and sells many iPhones in China, has removed sensitive programs from its Chinese app store. Companies with less exposure to China can take the high road. Facebook, Google and Twitter have reportedly threatened to pull out of Hong Kong, where the Communist Party recently tightened its grip.
Microsoft is somewhere in the middle. China has been a source of heartache for the company: from pirated Windows and Office software to raids on its offices by antitrust regulators. On July 19, America and several allies accused China of hacking Microsoft’s Exchange messaging service. At the same time, many Chinese are paying for their original products – and Microsoft would no doubt like more of them to do so. It doesn’t detail its Chinese sales, but last year its chairman said they contributed less than 2% to global revenues. If this share is to grow, self-censorship on LinkedIn may be the price to pay. ■
This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the title “LinkedOut”