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LinkedIn Enters China: Potential Benefits and Human Rights Challenges

Yesterday, LinkedIn announced its plans to start offering a Chinese-language version of its platform to users in mainland China. Acknowledging that the Chinese government requires Internet companies to engage in censorship in order to do business in China, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner pledged that “the company will undertake extensive measures to protect the rights and data of our members.“

LinkedIn’s move is potentially good news for greater access to information for Internet users in China. Social networking sites like LinkedIn, which has a user base that spans the globe, can help people to forge connections with those inside and outside their country. Users in China will have access to the professional and educational networks that already exist on LinkedIn, and will be able to develop their own connections and make contributions to the platform. Indeed, some 4 million users in China already use the English-language version of LinkedIn.

But operating in China entails much more than translating content into Simplified Chinese. The Chinese government requires companies in China to comply with strict censorship policies, which can include takedown demands for specific content as well as general monitoring requirements to review and remove information about topics – including political dissent and human rights advocacy – disfavored by the Chinese government. In addition to formal channels, the censorship regime operates through informal pressure on companies to self-censor. China’s homegrown social networks, including Renren and microblogging site Sina Weibo, have millions of Chinese users but much less uptake outside of China. Other global social networking platforms that do not operate under a Chinese business license, including Facebook and Twitter, are blocked in China.

In its post announcing the venture, LinkedIn acknowledges that its expansion into China is contingent on complying with formal government censorship demands. The company promises to be transparent about its business practices and that “[g]overnment restrictions on content will be implemented only when and to the extent required.” We are encouraged that LinkedIn is cognizant of the real human rights challenges to doing business in China and anticipate more detail about its plans to implement government censorship requirements in the most limited way possible. Free speech and unfettered association of LinkedIn users—both within and outside China—are essential elements of the platform’s success.

LinkedIn is likely to face challenging questions about the scope of the Chinese government’s inevitable demands to censor content and turn over information about users of the platform. For example, if users inside China connect with users outside China who post commentary or links to articles that are critical of the Chinese government – exactly the sort of thing that China censors in-country – it’s not clear how the Chinese censorship and surveillance regime will respond. If LinkedIn finds itself facing demands to limit access to content posted by users outside the country, or to hand over data about who its Chinese users connect with, it should be prepared to push back on such demands and to defend the rights of its users inside and outside of China.

As LinkedIn (or any other Internet company) develops its Chinese business, it is critical that the company adopt rigorous internal processes to ensure it makes decisions with full consideration of its users’ human rights. LinkedIn is currently an Observer of the Global Network Initiative, a coalition of Internet companies, human rights advocates, investors, and academics that have developed a set of Principles to help companies responsibly navigate government requests to censor content and access personal information. These Principles, which are derived from international human rights law, are founded on the commitment that information and communication technology companies “have the responsibility to respect and protect the freedom of expression and privacy rights of their users.” GNI has also developed implementation guidelines that elaborate on how companies should integrate the Principles into their ground-level business practices. As an Observer, LinkedIn has had the opportunity to become versed in the GNI Principles and learn from other participants – including member companies like Google, Yahoo, and Facebook – about their experiences operating in countries where human rights are at risk. In a welcome move, LinkedIn has applied to become a full member of GNI, which would entail a commitment to implement and uphold the GNI Principles in its business practices around the world.

LinkedIn will face many difficult choices in the coming months. We encourage LinkedIn, and any Internet company operating in China, to take its commitments to transparency and consultation seriously and to respond to these challenges in a principled way.