On Thursday, LinkedIn announced it plans to eliminate the Chinese version of its platform, removing one of the most prominent U.S.-operated social media bridges between China and the outside world. When LinkedIn revealed in 2014 that it would provide services in China, the company acknowledged that it would have to implement “government restrictions on content.” It was a bold and controversial decision that reflected optimism about doing business in China, as well as a willingness to weigh plusses and minuses. On the one hand there was a billion-population potential revenue stream and the real promise of connectivity between Chinese and international professionals. On the other was the noxious work of censoring political speech and the criticism it would certainly attract. Now, it appears, the minuses have outweighed the plusses.
The company, acquired by Microsoft in 2016, is not giving up on China’s professional networking sector. LinkedIn said it would replace its China operation with a freestanding job search site called InJobs that “will not include a social feed or the ability to share posts or articles.” That indicates a much decreased censorship load and a step back from managing the data protection burdens of moving Chinese user data across borders—a task set to get more complicated when the new Personal Information Protection Law goes into effect in November.
Right now, LinkedIn provides a rare conduit in which users in China can interact directly with people in other countries, without the Chinese user having to turn to a virtual private network or another Great Firewall dodge. The Chinese-run app WeChat can be used across borders, and people can enjoy (censored and surveilled) social feeds or subscribe to regulated public accounts—but WeChat is not really built for discovering people you don’t already know. Beijing-based ByteDance runs TikTok, but it’s not actually available in China, where people use its domestic equivalent Douyin. The Chinese government blocks its citizens from accessing global giants like Facebook and Twitter, and it generally blocks new platforms as soon as they attract the attention of censors. That’s what happened earlier this year after the audio-based social network Clubhouse drew round-the-clock crowds for its open discussions of subjects usually censored in China. All in all, there just aren’t many spaces for Chinese and others to meet online at scale.
LinkedIn went into China at a time when U.S. platforms knew operating there meant implementing censorship and navigating shifting compliance burdens. In many ways, the launch of LinkedIn China was the inverse of Google’s 2010 decision to shut down its censorship-compliant search engine Google.cn. For Google, some combination of reluctance to collaborate with censorship, anger at apparent Chinese incursions targeting user data, and stubbornly low market share led to the decision to exit China’s search market. While the departure allowed executives to stick up for the important human right of freedom of expression, there were still significant downsides for Chinese users, who lost access to Google’s useful services, one by one, as their government blocked them. It was a decision that at least some Google executives apparently came to regret: The company later launched a tightly held effort known as Project Dragonfly to re-enter Chinese search, only to be abandoned under employee and outside pressure after its existence became public.
While it is tempting to compare LinkedIn’s present departure to Google’s earlier exit, the details are complicated. With its domestic replacement platform, LinkedIn could still face difficult decisions about how to handle Chinese government demands for user data, and it will still have to navigate a rapidly evolving regulatory landscape governing data privacy, algorithms, and market behavior online. The new service will still face skepticism in China over its foreign ownership, and it may see retaliation under the new laws if Chinese authorities deem U.S. actions against Chinese companies to be discriminatory. Though user content will be more limited, it will still need to make sure no one enters their job title as “death to the Communist Party.” Most directly, while Microsoft is washing its hands of the challenge of censoring a cross-border social network, it still operates a censored version of its search engine Bing.
The demise of LinkedIn’s China effort appears to have a lot to do with its home country, the United States. Not only was LinkedIn under increased Chinese government pressure to tighten censorship there, but in doing so it caught the attention of critics in Washington. A series of scholars and journalists were recently informed their profiles would be blocked from view in China due to political content, leading to questions from members of Congress. This particular form of censorship, as well as the practice of informing affected users, has been longstanding and contested.
The ethical questions around a U.S. company providing a censored service have not fundamentally changed since Google shut down its search engine, or since LinkedIn set up its operation—even if the day’s geopolitics have. LinkedIn helped enforce the widespread political censorship experienced on all platforms in China’s digital economy, a job any champion of free expression would loathe. Its efforts touched international users, who were selectively blocked from view, denying them an equal voice on the platform and giving Chinese users a distorted window into international discourse. Nonetheless, Chinese users have enjoyed a rare avenue to reach international colleagues and explore social networks abroad, albeit with limits imposed at the behest of their government. And LinkedIn’s international users could contact or learn from the profiles of Chinese users without joining a China-only platform. In any case, LinkedIn’s departure from China does nothing to decrease online censorship there.
LinkedIn might have several good reasons to tear down its bridge into China: disgust with censorship, regulatory impasses, lagging business performance. But while it is easy, and perhaps righteous, to celebrate a U.S. company partly abandoning the censorship business, we should also mourn the loss of a truly rare connection amid a deepening U.S.-China divide.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.