Profits and Values

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Article from Issue 248/2021
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The interface of politics with tech is always complicated – even when the stated values of the country and the company are similar. But in a world of global corporations and diverging values, the interplay is almost impossible to follow.

Dear Reader,

The interface of politics with tech is always complicated – even when the stated values of the country and the company are similar. But in a world of global corporations and diverging values, the interplay is almost impossible to follow.

For instance, skirmishes of tech companies with China have been in the news recently. I should start by saying, few western social media companies even operate in China. Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media giants are all blocked, having fallen out with authorities for various reasons – including for refusing to comply with censorship demands.

LinkedIn remains in operation behind China's "great firewall," but the Chinese government is leaning heavily on them to step up their censorship. According to the New York Times, China's Internet regulator scolded LinkedIn in March for failing to enforce censorship rules [1]. As a punishment, the Chinese government suspended new LinkedIn sign-ups in China for 30 days and ordered the company to perform a "self evaluation" and submit a report about it.

Fast forward to May, and LinkedIn appeared to have learned their lesson. British journalist Peter Humphrey, a critic of the Chinese government, claimed that LinkedIn censored his reference to the Chinese government as a "repressive dictatorship" and his assessment of Chinese government media as a "propaganda machine" [2]. Humphrey apparently reported that he received a notification from LinkedIn that his comments were removed for "bullying and harassment." His account was then placed in a restricted state because of "behavior that appears to violate" the terms of service.

After a public outcry, LinkedIn restored Humphrey's account and some (but not all) of the content. A spokesperson for LinkedIn told Bloomberg, "Our team has reviewed the action, based on our appeals process, and found it was an error" [3].

There is a lot to learn in this kind of a story, although you can never quite see to the bottom of it. One question is, why is LinkedIn still in China when companies like Google and Facebook have already left. One (perhaps naive) answer is that the other companies have better values than LinkedIn. This interpretation is certainly something to consider, or at least, it is something you can't really rule out, but other factors are also at play. For instance, LinkedIn is owned by Microsoft, which is more like an old-school IT company than a social media company and has some irons in the fire that complicate the equation. I should also note that some observers believe the presence of LinkedIn in China creates a tension for censors that would not be present if they disappeared. In this example, for instance, LinkedIn went along with the censorship at first, but under pressure from the international community, they backed down. That can only happen if companies with an international presence are part of the China scene and therefore part of the conversation.

But it is also important to remember that this devil's dance of tech versus censorship is not just a social media problem. Another recent report in the New York Times details Apple's long history of spouting liberal values in the west while caving to government demands in China [4]. According to the report, "…thousands of apps have disappeared from Apple's Chinese App Store over the past several years, more than previously known, including foreign news outlets, gay dating services, and encrypted messaging apps. It has also blocked tools for organizing pro-democracy protests and skirting Internet restrictions, as well as apps about the Dalai Lama."

What should we do about all of this? Of course, there are many layers and levels of possible involvement, depending on your time and interest. If you want to get actively involved, Amnesty International is a good place to start [5]. But one thing we can all do is keep talking about it and calling it out when we see it so that others will see it. As the LinkedIn example illustrates, these companies really do care what people think, and shining light on an issue can sometimes lead to a better outcome.

Joe Casad, Editor in Chief

Infos

  1. "China Punishes Microsoft's LinkedIn Over Lax Censorship": https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/18/technology/china-linkedin-censorship.html
  2. "LinkedIn Accused of Censoring for Beijing": https://reclaimthenet.org/linkedin-accused-of-censoring-for-beijing/
  3. "Microsoft's LinkedIn Accused by Noted China Critic of Censorship": https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-05-12/microsoft-s-linkedin-accused-by-noted-china-critic-of-censorship
  4. "Censorship, Surveillance, and Profits: A Hard Bargain for Apple in China": https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/17/technology/apple-china-censorship-data.html
  5. Amnesty International China Overview: https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/asia-and-the-pacific/china/

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