A prominent critic of China based in the UK. said Microsoft Corp.’s LinkedIn froze his account and removed content criticizing the country’s government, the latest in a series of allegations that the networking website had censored users — even outside of the Asian nation — to appease authorities in Beijing.
Peter Humphrey, a British corporate investigator and former journalist who accesses LinkedIn from his home in Surrey, England, said he received notification from LinkedIn last month that comments he had published on the platform had been removed. The comments, seen by Bloomberg News, called the Chinese government a “repressive dictatorship” and criticized the country’s state media organizations as “propaganda mouthpieces.”
In late April, Humphrey said LinkedIn sent him several notifications that critical comments he posted about China’s government and state-controlled broadcaster China Global Television Network, or CGTN, had been removed, on the grounds that the comments constituted “bullying and harassment” or “spam and scams.” On April 26, Humphrey said he couldn’t access his LinkedIn profile.
When Humphrey tried to log in, he said he was met with a message stating his profile had been “restricted” due to “behavior that appears to violate our Terms of Service.”
After Bloomberg News contacted LinkedIn for comment last week, the company reinstated Humphrey’s account and restored some of his comments, including those listed above. Others were not. “Our team has reviewed the action, based on our appeals process, and found it was an error,” said Leonna Spilman, a spokeswoman for LinkedIn. Spilman declined to comment further regarding Humphrey’s account.
The Chinese government’s foreign ministry didn’t respond to requests for comment.
LinkedIn, owned by Microsoft Corp., entered the Chinese market in early 2014, operating under the name Lingying. It remains the only U.S. social media network allowed to operate in the country, but it complies with the Chinese government’s restrictions on certain kinds of content for users in China. The company doesn’t specify what content it restricts.
Isaac Stone Fish, founder and chief executive officer of Strategy Risks, a research firm that specializes in corporate relations with China, said the removal of Humphrey’s account — even if only temporary — was a worrying sign that LinkedIn may be moving to censor content critical of China from its platform globally, and not just for users in China.
“LinkedIn pretends that what happens in China stays in China and that the policies that its China-based operation has don’t bleed into global policies,” said Stone Fish. “But this is a pretty clear example of LinkedIn’s China policies hurting its global commitment to freedom of speech and expression.”
LinkedIn said in March that it was pausing new member sign-ups for LinkedIn users in China as it worked to “ensure we remain in compliance with local law.” Earlier that month, China’s internet regulator reprimanded LinkedIn executives for failing to control political content, according to the New York Times.
An employee at Human Rights Watch who isn’t based in China said her account was suspended in February from the Chinese version of the website for “prohibited content.” “While we strongly support freedom of expression, we recognized when we launched that we would need to adhere to the requirements of the Chinese government in order to operate in China,” LinkedIn stated in a message to the woman.
LinkedIn informed the Human Rights Watch employee that her profile could be reinstated if she removed certain information from her profile but didn’t specify which content needed to be deleted. The employee’s profile contains mention of human rights advocacy and media work that involved Chinese dissidents. The employee requested anonymity — and that her location not be revealed — to protect against retribution.
Spilman, the LinkedIn spokeswoman, defended the company’s decision to block the Human Rights Watch employee’s profile from view in China.
“Our team has reviewed the profile and we are upholding this decision based on our Professional Community Policies,” Spilman said. “We’re a global platform with an obligation to respect the laws that apply to us, including adhering to Chinese government regulations for our localized version of LinkedIn in China.”
In an interview, Humphrey, 65, accused LinkedIn of “kowtowing” to China. “This highlights the partial control that China has over LinkedIn,” he said. “They made me a non-person. Only under pressure of journalists calling did they draw in their horns and reverse course.”
Humphrey has previously had his LinkedIn account removed. In December 2018, he was notified that his profile wouldn’t be visible in China due to the “presence of specific content.” Contacted by Buzzfeed News on that occasion, LinkedIn cited an error and said it was “updating our internal processes to help prevent an error like this from happening again.”
Humphrey was jailed in China in 2013, accused of “illegally acquiring personal information” of Chinese nationals. His confession, which he says was recorded under force, was aired by the Chinese broadcaster CGTN. CGTN later told the UK. media watchdog Ofcom that Humphrey did not appear to be “under duress” when he was interviewed, according to the BBC. Released in 2015, Humphrey was deported to England and has since campaigned against the Chinese government and CGTN.