LinkedIn: technological and financial giants; but morally pygmies

When LinkedIn decided to create a China-hosted version of its website in February, 2014, it made a decision to compromise the company's values in the pursuit of the dollar.

It's important to note that before LinkedIn launched LingYing (the local version of the site), LinkedIn was already active in China. By their own account, they had four million registered users (with little marketing effort), a Chinese-language interface and China-based clients who were buying recruitment ads on the platform (the major source of their revenue). The site had been blocked by the authorities for one 24-hour period but otherwise was always accessible.

So why was it necessary for LinkedIn to create a local entity in China? With a local entity the company would be able to issue official receipts in RMB, making it more convenient for local companies to buy advertising on the site. A local entity also makes it easier to secure marketing deals to promote LingYing in China.

But perhaps the biggest appeal in creating a local entity for LinkedIn is that it would be among the few foreign internet companies who could cosy up with Lu Wei and the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC). Having that kind of a relationship with CAC surely helps the business and those who are associated with the company.

2015-07-14-1436865048-6462717-1115415785_14326334877831n.jpg

LinkedIn's Reid Hoffman meets China's cyber czar Lu Wei for the umpteenth time.

There are surely other additional benefits, but in order to operate as a local entity, LinkedIn had to agree to the following:

  • To censor content and users on the platform, inside and outside of China, on a 24/7 basis at the behest of the authorities.
  • To store all data about its Chinese users on servers inside China and to agree to allow the Chinese authorities to access this data whenever they want to.
  • To follow all present and future regulations on internet operations in China.

LinkedIn already has egg on its face over its handling of censorship in China. While their commitment to transparency remains vague and noncommittal ("may", "could", "attempt"), the company's CEO, Jeff Weiner, has been more explicit in his description of how he handles censorship. The following is a transcript from the 22 minute mark in an interview with BuzzFeed's Mat Honan:

Weiner: "I'll tell ya, you can have any discussion you want theoretically, but when you are actually asked to censor even one thing, one profile or one update, it's gut-wrenching. It's gut-wrenching. And so we take that very, very seriously.".

Honan: "Do you get involved in those discussions personally?"

Weiner: "So our head of China reports directly to me."

Honan: "Is that a "yes"?

Weiner: "Yeah."

(If you want to listen to the entire China discussion, this starts around the 19 minute mark.)

There is no need to sugarcoat Weiner's disingenuousness in this interview. Anybody remotely familiar with how censorship works in China would be able to tell you that it is near impossible that Weiner personally discusses whether to censor individual updates and profiles on LinkedIn. Nor, for that matter, would his China CEO have the time to do that.

If we want to give Weiner the benefit of the doubt and take his comments at face value, this means that he would have to consider, on a daily basis, all of the censorship directives handed down by the authorities and whether or not they applied to each individual member, plus any requests that have been submitted directly to LinkedIn.

Locally registered internet companies, like LingYing, must censor the information which appears on their sites and employ roughly one censor for every 100,000 users on its platform. In its heyday, Weibo employed 4000 censors in house. With LinkedIn's 9 million members in China, this would mean that Weiner and China CEO Derek Shen are personally handling the work of 90 censors. If true, shareholders should be concerned that the CEO is spending more time dealing with censorship than trying to drive recruitment advertising revenue.

Weiner then goes on to say that the justification for censoring content on a global basis is that the potential exists for content to get "re-circulated" back into China, which may put their "members" in danger. This is an argument that seems to hold weight with many foreign internet firms - that Chinese internet users are not mature enough to understand what is appropriate to post and what is not appropriate to post.

We would posit that perhaps LinkedIn executives are not mature enough to handle China. In the midst of market turmoil, we have seen increased censorship of postsrelated to how the authorities handle this situation. Surely, this is the type of content that business people in China would be sharing on LinkedIn. Is this the type of censorship that Weiner finds "gut-wrenching"? Has he ever said "no" to the censors?

We likely will not be able to verify that information because of LinkedIn's local entity in China. It appears that this entity does not submit information for LinkedIn's transparency report. China is not mentioned in any report, despite a flurry of update and profile deletions around the two most recent Tiananmen anniversaries. While LinkedIn does not seemingly provide statistics on content removal, it does provide member data to governments upon request. However, no such requests from China appear in the report. What is the point of issuing an opaque transparency report?

This may be due to the fact that the Chinese authorities have requested that LinkedIn not share information about their requests - another pitfall of doing business in China. As China works through the details of its cybersecurity law, who knows what new requests lurk around the corner? What we do know is this - whatever the request, LinkedIn will be there to meet it, because relationships matter.

The issue of storing data in China raises many questions. What constitutes a Chinese user for LinkedIn? Presumably, the 4 million Chinese users who had joined before LinkedIn registered a local entity had their data shifted to China. Were they informed of this change?

When considering LinkedIn's transparency policy on content removal, it is also safe to assume that if you claim to be based in China or if you use the Chinese-language interface, regardless of where you may live or what language you speak, your information will be stored in data centers in China.

This is a dangerous development for many of LinkedIn's users, including dissidents, activists, journalists and those working in the non-profit sector. In 2004, Yahooinfamously handed over the emails of a dissident at the request of the Chinese authorities. These emails were later used as justification for sending the dissident to prison for eight years. By the letter of the law, LinkedIn would need to do the same. This information could include a user's location, communications and the profiles of people that are in their networks on LinkedIn, regardless of whether or not those users are based in China.

Sometime in May 2015, LinkedIn deleted my profile on their website. In all honesty, my profile was likely violating several items in the company's user agreement, including the use of a real name ("Charlie Smith" is a pseudonym). But how the company has handled the censorship of my account and the censorship of news which the Chinese authorities have deemed harmful, raises many questions about how foreign internet firms who wish to operate in the China market balance local laws against freedom of speech.

GreatFire has used LinkedIn since 2011. To the company's credit, LinkedIn helped us find contacts that could help with our mission of ending online censorship in China. We then started to automatically post our FreeWeibo Twitter feed to our LinkedIn profile and we expanded our network by connecting to Chinese who were working in media in China. As the LinkedIn site is not blocked, this proved to be an effective means of distributing banned content.

LinkedIn never informed me my account was taken offline. IFTTT, the app I used to auto post from my Twitter feed informed me that the LinkedIn recipe was no longer working. I wrote to LinkedIn twice before I received an answer about my account. The company then asked me to send government issued-ID to prove that the photo I was using on my profile matched my identity (I used a picture of Lu Wei as my profile photo). After I submitted copies of this information (not my real identity) I was then told that my account was being restricted because of "inappropriate content". They furthermore responded:

LinkedIn determined that recent public activity you posted (such as comments, or items shared with your network) contained content prohibited in China.

LinkedIn users in China who are activists, human rights defenders, working for nonprofits, journalists and the many, many others who operate in fields deemed "sensitive" by the authorities (including lawyers), should take the necessary actions to protect their personal security. The mishandling of the deletion of our four-year old account (with thousands of connections), raises several red flags:

  • After submitting my photo identification to LinkedIn for verification, they confirmed that they have deleted this information from their database. But according to Chinese law, this information needs to be retained, even if accounts are deleted.
  • After LinkedIn communicated that I needed to submit identification to get my account restored, they then told me that my account would be deleted because content I shared on the platform was illegal (they refused to elaborate on what content, specifically). Confusingly, if LinkedIn was deleting my account over content issues, why was it necessary for me to send them my personal identification?
  • LinkedIn will not inform you that your account has been removed or that your updates have been deleted. And their non-committal "commitment" to transparency allows them to take these types of actions.
  • If LinkedIn considered my account to be outside of China, then they would likely be able to delete my personal information from their database. But this then shows that they are practicing Chinese censorship on a global basis. If LinkedIn considered my account to be inside China, and they have deleted my personal information from their database, then they are in violation of Chinese law. But because relationships matter, they likely escaped punishment by the authorities.

As China drafts its cybersecurity law, we can thank businesses like LinkedIn for any new, overbearing requirements. LinkedIn have shown that they will do anything for the authorities in return for market access. Now, when a new foreign company wants to enter the China market, the authorities can simply point at LinkedIn and say "these are the minimum requirements you have to meet".

If LinkedIn mimicked their China approach in the West, human rights organizations would be all over them. It is highly likely that the authorities are demanding that LinkedIn hand over sensitive information about dissidents, activists, civil society actors and any other group deemed to be "picking quarrels". By the letter of the law, LinkedIn will have to comply with these requests - but they will simply see this as a "gut-wrenching" cost of doing business and nothing else.

LinkedIn would do well to heed the words of Tom Lantos who, while investigating Yahoo's complicit cooperation with the Chinese authorities, had this to say about American companies operating in China:

Chinese citizens who had the courage to speak their minds on the internet are in a Chinese gulag because Yahoo chose to reveal their identities to the Chinese government. It is beyond comprehension that an American company would play the role of willing accomplice in the Chinese suppression apparatus. My message to these companies today is simple: your abhorrent activities in China are a disgrace. I simply do not understand how your corporate leadership sleeps at night.

These enterprises, which have grown so powerful, so wealthy, so full of themselves, apparently have very little social conscience, apparently they don't appreciate their success is a result of a free and open and democratic society. What I am suggesting is that they do something in addition, merely, to doing business according to the laws of a repressive regime.

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星期一, 8月 03, 2020

Announcing the Release of GreatFire Appmaker

GreatFire (https://en.greatfire.org/), a China-focused censorship monitoring organization, is proud to announce that we have developed and released a new anti-censorship tool that will enable any blocked media outlet, blogger, human rights group, or civil society organization to evade censors and get their content onto the phones of millions of readers and supporters in China and other countries that censor the Internet.

GreatFire has built an Android mobile app creator, called “GreatFire AppMaker”, that can be used by organizations to unblock their content for users in China and other countries. Organizations can visit a website (https://appmaker.greatfire.org/) which will compile an app that is branded with the organization’s own logo and will feature their own, formerly blocked content. The app will also contain a special, censorship-circumventing web browser so that users can access the uncensored World Wide Web. The apps will use multiple strategies, including machine learning, to evade advanced censorship tactics employed by the Chinese authorities.  This project will work equally well in other countries that have China-like censorship restrictions. For both organizations and end users, the apps will be free, fast, and extremely easy to use.

This project was inspired by China-based GreatFire’s first-hand experience with our own FreeBrowser app (https://freebrowser.org/en) and desire to help small NGOs who may not have the in-house expertise to circumvent Chinese censorship. GreatFire’s anti-censorship tools have worked in China when others do not. FreeBrowser directs Chinese internet users to normally censored stories from the app’s start page (http://manyvoices.news/).

星期五, 7月 24, 2020

Apple, anticompetition, and censorship

On July 20, 2020, GreatFire wrote to all 13 members of the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law of the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary, requesting a thorough examination into Apple’s practice of censorship of its App Store, and an investigation into how the company collaborates with the Chinese authorities to maintain its unique position as one of the few foreign tech companies operating profitably in the Chinese digital market.  

This letter was sent a week before Apple CEO TIm Cook will be called for questioning in front of the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law. The CEOs of Amazon, Google and Facebook will also be questioned on July 27, as part of the Committee’s ongoing investigation into competition in the digital marketplace.

This hearing offers an opportunity to detail to the Subcommittee how Apple uses its closed operating ecosystem to not only abuse its market position but also to deprive certain users, most notably those in China, of their right to download and use apps related to privacy, secure communication, and censorship circumvention.

We hope that U.S. House representatives agree with our view that Apple should not be allowed to do elsewhere what would be considered as unacceptable in the U.S. Chinese citizens are not second class citizens. Private companies such as Apple compromise themselves and their self-proclaimed values of freedom and privacy when they collaborate with the Chinese government and its censors.

星期一, 6月 10, 2019

苹果审查中国西藏的信息

苹果在涉及西藏的审查方面有着悠久历史。 2009年,据计算机世界网透露 ,与达赖喇嘛有关的几个应用程序在苹果的中国区应用商店中不存在。这些应用的开发者未收到他们的应用被删除的通知。当面对这些审查制度时,苹果发言人只是说该公司将“继续遵守当地法律”。

2017年12月,在中国的一次会议上,当被问及与中国当局合作审查苹果应用商店时,蒂姆·库克 宣称

“所以你的选择是参与进去,还是站在局外,吼叫着事情应当怎样?我自己的看法非常强烈,你得进入赛场,因为没有任何东西会从局外发生改变。"

自苹果公司首次因与中国当局合作以遏制已被边缘化的声音而被批评的十年间,情况发生了什么变化?苹果继续严格遵守中国当局的审查令。蒂姆库克什么时候会期望他的公司能帮助在中国带来积极的变化?

根据生成的数据 https://applecensorship.com,Apple现在已经审查了在中国应用商店中29个西藏的热门应用程序。关于新闻,宗教研究,旅游甚至游戏的西藏主题应用程序正在被苹果审查。最下方附有完整的审查应用列表。

“苹果的领导力隐藏在他们审查应用程序以遵守模糊的'中国当地法律'的借口,但他们的行为缺乏任何透明度。通过从中国苹果应用商店删除藏文和其他许多应用程序,苹果阻碍了藏人获取信息和自由表达自己的能力,这是国际法下的一项基本人权。“ TibCERT(西藏计算机应急准备小组)的响应协调员Dorjee Phuntsok说道。 他们与GreatFire合作对被屏蔽的应用程序进行了分析。

   2019年1月,GreatFire推出了applecensorship.com。在那时,GreatFire联合创始人马丁约翰逊指出:“苹果公司在其透明度报告中没有分享有关应用商店审查的信息 - 该项目强制透明度。蒂姆库克可以随心所欲地说苹果在中国做了或没有做什么,但 applecensorship.com 提供了可以实际看到苹果实施审查原始数据的途径。

分析苹果在中国审查的iOS应用程序

有许多应用程序由藏人或为藏人制作,苹果正在审查中国区应用商店中的许多应用程序。了解某些应用程序被阻止的方式和原因以及这些决策背后的基本原理非常重要。为了解这一点,TibCERT(西藏应急准备小组)对在中国应用商店中被审查的藏文应用程序进行了分析。该研究使用关键字搜索藏文应用程序,然后使用GreatFire提供的应用程序审查平台。

TibCERT分析了119个以藏语为主题的iOS应用程序。使用“西藏”,“藏人”,“达赖喇嘛”,“佛教”,“藏传佛教”,等关键词搜索苹果应用商店时,可以找到下面列出的应用程序。这些应用程序分为五大类:“宗教或文化”,“媒体/政治”,“娱乐”,“工具”和“教育”。

星期四, 6月 06, 2019

重点关注苹果在中国审查实践的报告

最新的 数字版权企业责任指数排名 就公司和政府需要做些什么来提出建议,以改善全球互联网用户的人权保护。数字版权排名(RDR)旨在通过为公司尊重和保护用户权利制定全球标准和激励措施,以促进互联网上的言论自由和隐私权。

在他们的2019年责任指数中,RDR着眼于24家世界上最重要的互联网公司在言论自由和隐私方面的政策,并强调了那些尚需努力和已经取得改进的公司。 RDR指出:

透明度不足使私人政党,政府和公司本身更容易通过网络言论滥用权力,并规避责任。

特别是,该报告强调了苹果如何滥用其网络言论的权力,并在中国指出这一点。根据该报告,苹果公司在面对政府当局提出的要求时,并未披露其从App Store中删除内容的数据。

虽然[苹果]披露了有关政府限制帐户请求的数据,但它没有披露有关内容删除请求的数据,例如从苹果应用商店删除应用程序的请求。苹果公司对其影响言论自由的政策和做法讳莫如深,这让它的排名低于此类别的所有其他美国公司。

该报告为政府提出了明智而感性的建议。然而,这些建议还强调了与中国政府进行这些讨论是多么的困难。

RDR 建议政府要求公司的透明度并保持透明度。中国当局采取相反的做法 - 他们不希望在这些问题上保持透明度,因为它突显了他们不希望公众了解的信息。当局不希望公司透明,他们可能直接指示Apple不发布他们正删除的内容列表。

苹果可能真的认为他们必须遵守中国的法律条文。或者他们也可能愿意分享有关App Store中被审查内容的信息,但有碍于被中国当局束手束脚。苹果还可能会利用这种情况作为他们打击中国言论自由的掩护。无论Apple的真实动机如何,透明度都能够并已经被强加给他们。

在2019年1月,GreatFire发布了 applecensorship.com。该项目监控Apple在公司运营的每个市场中对App Store的审查。应用程序的可用性测试由网站访问者进行。截至今天,用户生成的测试已经确定了 超过1100个 在中国应用商店中不可用的应用。在中国受审查的应用程序包括那些涉及宗教,新闻,隐私和翻墙的应用程序。通过审查有助于规避审查限制的应用程序,苹果确实的让中国人无法自由访问信息。苹果的中国用户或许认为他们买到的是一流的设备 - 但可以肯定的是,该公司将他们视为二等信息公民。

RDR建议苹果对言论自由的限制保持透明,并公布有关公司因政府要求而删除内容所采取行动的数据。我们邀苹果审核我们在 applecensorship.com 上公开发布的数据,并根据中国当局的指示突出显示已删除应用的情况。

星期四, 11月 30, 2017

关于在中国苹果商店被审查的那674个软件

苹果对中国区的审查行为敞开了大门 - 但这似乎只是冰山一角。
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