Tech firm LinkedIn has censored the profile of US journalist Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian in China, inviting her to “update” content without specifying what triggered the block.

Photo: @BethanyAllenEbr, via Twitter.

The social media platform, owned by US firm Microsoft, told the Axios journalist on Tuesday that her profile, comments and public activity “will not be made viewable in China.” They offered to work with Allen-Ebrahimian if she agreed to “update the Summary section” of her profile.

In response, Allen-Ebrahimian – who is currently writing a book on China – accused LinkedIn of offering a “free self-censorship consulting service,” calling it a “very disturbing ‘offer’.”

“They are suggesting that the politically sensitive content be removed from MY END, meaning it would be deleted entirely off the internet, not just for China’s market. Total censorship,” she said.

“This goes beyond China’s model of ‘internet sovereignty’ and imposes China’s censorship extraterritorially… The only way to fight China’s censorship laws is with law and govt action. Transparency and civil society action won’t work.”

LinkedIn began operating in China in 2014, with then-CEO Jeff Weiner saying the firm would have to submit to government censorship “when and to the extent required.”

He vowed that LinkedIn would be transparent about its dealings in China, though a spokesperson on Wednesday evaded HKFP’s questions.

LinkedIn China operations

In March, the New York Times reported that the Chinese authorities had punished Microsoft over “objectionable political content” on the business-focused social media network, forcing it to perform a self-evaluation and submit a report to the country’s internet regulators. New sign-ups were suspended for 30 days, and academics, journalists and other China-watchers increasingly found their profiles censored in China in the months that followed.

Photo: HKFP Remix.

LinkedIn – the only major US social media network accessible in China – censored the profile of Swedish writer and photographer Jojje Olsson in June. His profile’s visibility in China was suspended over “prohibited content,” after he mentioned the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre as a field of study.

A survivor of the crackdown, pro-democracy activist Zhou Fengsuo, also found his profile censored in 2019. However, it was reinstated after a public outcry.

Eyck Freymann, an Oxford University doctoral student, China-watcher Bill Bishop, Stephen Nagy, an academic at Tokyo’s International Christian University, and Roie Yellinek of Israel’s BESA Center for Strategic Studies, are among others who have seen their profiles blocked in China.

When approached by HKFP, LinkedIn firm did not directly address what content was at fault on Allen-Ebrahimian’s account, or how profiles are censored. They also did not state which content may be forbidden. However, a spokesperson said: “We’re a global platform that respects the laws that apply to us, including adhering to Chinese government regulations for our localized version of LinkedIn in China. For members whose profile visibility is limited within China, their profiles are still visible across the rest of the globe where LinkedIn is available.”

LinkedIn did not clarify which Chinese law or regulations they were obeying.

According to its Transparency Report, LinkedIn declined two government data requests from China between July 1, 2020 and December 2020. However, it complied with 16 out of 18 data removal requests from Beijing in the first half of 2020, and 22 out of 24 requests in the latter half of that year. In all, it complied with 89 per cent of such requests. The report did not state which content was removed.

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Tom is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hong Kong Free Press. He has a BA in Communications & New Media from Leeds University and an MA in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong. He has contributed to the BBC, Euronews, Quartz, Global Post and others.