China's fist

China has blocked access to Google, the Wall Street Journal, and other websites ahead of the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre to prevent its citizens and news organizations from discussing the event. That’s hardly new — the country has been censoring discussions and reports on the massacre for years, and it is no stranger to blocking vast areas of the Internet. Thus, the most surprising thing about this year’s attempts to block discussion is LinkedIn’s “accidental” censorship in Hong Kong.

LinkedIn said when it announced a dedicated micro-site for the Chinese market that it would comply with the government’s censorship laws. But the laws aren’t supposed to extend to Hong Kong, which has its own rules and whose citizens are allowed to discuss the Tiananmen Square Massacre without fear of reprisal from the Chinese government. The Daily Beast reports that the censorship of some content posted by LinkedIn users in Hong Kong is “accidental” and that the company had meant only to block access to the content from within mainland China. (See update on this part of the story below.)

The company explained its motivations in a statement to the Daily Beast:

We’ve 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. These requirements have just recently gone into effect. As we said at the time of our launch in February, 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.

Yet LinkedIn’s approach to censorship seems oddly convoluted. The company has said that any content shared from mainland China will be censored for all LinkedIn users around the world, while content shared from outside mainland China will only be censored within the country. This means that the company has essentially created a separate network for Chinese users who will be unable to freely share information even though LinkedIn  is based in the United States, doesn’t operate any servers in mainland China, and doesn’t censor content in other countries.

This two-tier censorship allows some content posted from Hong Kong to be treated as if it were posted from mainland China, preventing it from being seen by any LinkedIn users. This is said to be accidental, but the readiness with which LinkedIn offers to censor user activity and the fact that this is happening around the anniversary of one of the most controversial events in recent history makes it hard to believe that this is simply a technical problem. It might be, and it would be nice to believe that it is, but that would be suspiciously coincidental.

Of course, it’s up to LinkedIn to decide if it wants to censor its users, but if it’s going to bow to Chinese government’s whim by preventing people from posting to its global network, it had damned well better have the technology to make sure that the censorship is only applied in relevant instances. And it should make it clear that its network is focused first on gathering enough users in China to seize an emerging market and second on facilitating real discussions.

[Update 11:00am:]

After this post was published, a LinkedIn spokesperson reached out to say that the company didn’t mistakenly censor items shared from Hong Kong; it instead sent them a message to that effect, meaning that the mistake was in its claim of censorship, not the censorship itself. The points about LinkedIn’s censorship policies and needing to get its technologies right — even if that means perfecting the technologies that inform users of censorship instead of the those used for the censorship itself — still stand, however. The company’s full statement is below:

LinkedIn’s goal in China is to connect Chinese professionals with each other and with our more than 300 million existing members globally, so they can create economic opportunities for one another. We’ve 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. These requirements have just recently gone into effect.
We are strongly in support of freedom of expression.  But, as we said at the time of our launch in February, 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.   We will also continue to be transparent about how we conduct business in China and use multiple avenues to notify impacted members within China about our practices.