LinkedIn might not inspire the same fury and fervor as Facebook, Twitter or even Google — yet the Microsoft-owned professional networking platform’s departure from the Chinese market represents as significant a moment as almost any for the global Internet. It was the last major American social media site operating there officially.
U.S. firms have done business in China with their eyes open: They will compromise on civil liberties, they know, yet they hope their compliance pays off — not only in revenue but also in the scintilla of liberalization a firm based in a democratic country can bring to an authoritarian one. Yet one by one, companies such as Twitter and Facebook have been blocked or, like Google, withdrawn of their own reluctant accord. They have discovered the demands made of them to censor information or fork over consumer data are too much, and the reward too little. In September, LinkedIn was embroiled in controversy over the removal of U.S. journalists’ profiles from the China app. The fracas followed the blocking of scholars and human rights activists living around the world.
LinkedIn will shutter the Chinese version of its product in favor of a jobs board app stripped of shared posts or articles. The company mentions in the blog post announcing its decision a “significantly more challenging operating environment and greater compliance requirements”; it also mentions “freedom of expression.” The post’s equivalent in Chinese doesn’t include any of these terms, notes the news site Protocol. That just about sums up the problem. LinkedIn was caught between pressure from the regime when it facilitated too much cross-cultural conversation and debate — and pressure from critics abroad when it buckled to the Chinese Communist Party’s dictates. LinkedIn couldn’t win.
Now it feels as though everyone will lose. Microsoft was correct to withdraw LinkedIn from the vast Chinese market if the only other option was to capitulate. Doing otherwise would have meant being complicit in Chinese repression, as well as encouraging authoritarian leaders elsewhere to test the bounds of their bullying abilities and see what they can get away with. Yet in the immediate term, users in China have lost another rare connection to the rest of the world. The services they will turn to instead — Chinese-owned WeChat first and foremost among them — won’t waste their time trying to permit as much speech as they can without breaking the nation’s unjust laws. U.S. technology companies remaining in China, including Apple and, yes, Microsoft via its Bing search engine, must ask themselves: Is their ability to mitigate some human rights harms dwarfed by the obligation to cause others? The answer is usually yes. But the choice to leave, right as it may be, is terribly discouraging.
The United States, its allies and the firms that share their values must fight for a global Web of the future where this miserable dilemma is the exception rather than the rule.