LinkedIn censored, and then quickly restored, the profile of a New York–based Chinese human rights activist on its Chinese platform after a wave of negative publicity.
Zhou Fengsuo, one of the founders of a nonprofit organization that aids political prisoners and other vulnerable groups in China, is best known as one of the student leaders of the pro-democracy protests at Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989, which ended in a bloody crackdown by the Chinese government. He was forced into exile in the United States over his role in the student movement, which landed him on a most-wanted list in China.
On Jan. 3, LinkedIn sent Zhou a message saying although the company "strongly supports freedom of expression," his profile and activities would not be viewable to users in China because of "specific content on your profile."
Hours later, Microsoft-owned LinkedIn reversed its decision, apparently after South China Morning Post reporter Owen Churchill brought attention to the case.
The development comes as Silicon Valley companies come under increasing pressure over their compliance with censorship rules in authoritarian countries such as China. Netflix this week pulled an episode of Hasan Minhaj's political comedy show in Saudi Arabia, apparently because it was critical of the Saudi government. And Google recently faced heavy criticism for a secret project that would have brought a censored version of its search platform to users in China, though the company has reportedly scrapped the project amid protests from its own employees.
LinkedIn, one of the few non-Chinese social media platforms not blocked by China's heavy-handed online censorship apparatus, has agreed to remove certain content in China that violates government rules. But like other tech companies, LinkedIn doesn't usually disclose what content is taken down, in response to which authorities, and why.
In the message to Zhou, LinkedIn says it is notifying him that his profile would not be visible in China as a transparency measure, prompting criticism from human rights advocates including Peter Dahlin, director of the group Safeguard Defenders and a campaigner against extrajudicial detention in China.
Asked about the reasoning behind the decision, Nicole Leverich, a spokesperson for LinkedIn, said, "our Trust and Safety team has reviewed this issue, determined the profile was blocked in error and restored the visibility of the member’s profile in China."
She declined to respond to questions about whether LinkedIn initially took the profile down at the request of Chinese government authorities or what content on Zhou's profile prompted the decision.
Zhou told BuzzFeed News he wasn't certain why his profile was targeted but said it came the same day that his WeChat account was suspended, leading him to suspect a demand from authorities had resulted in both suspensions. WeChat, which is owned by Chinese tech giant Tencent, frequently censors politically sensitive content at the request of Chinese government authorities. Zhou believes the trigger for the suspensions was a 29-minute video he posted that centers on the massacre near Tiananmen Square in 1989.
"I feel threatened and outraged," he said. LinkedIn's decision was doubly painful for him, he said, as a survivor of that massacre — an event the Chinese government has sought to censor and repress for decades.
"As as Tiananmen survivor, my profile was erased from Chinese public together with the whole movement since 1989," he said. "Now the western companies are by default complicit with [the Chinese Communist Party]."
"What is normal for others is, for me, a fight against ignorance and forced amnesia," he added.