LinkedIn debacle may come back to haunt the Chinese authorities

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There were no winners when LinkedIn announced last week that it was making adjustments to its China censorship policy. Not LinkedIn, not Chinese internet users and not even the Chinese authorities.

LinkedIn ends up with jianbing all over its face for a number of reasons. The company comes across as being tragically naive (what were they thinking when they agreed to cleanse global news feeds of sensitive Chinese news?), woefully ill-prepared (did they think nobody would notice?) and not very forthcoming (which needs more than a set of brackets to explain).

if Linkedin "has occasionally blocked Sinocism within China" why I have only received one single notice about it? @hdurzy

— Bill Bishop (@niubi) September 4, 2014

Most media reports fail to pinpoint the real reason behind LinkedIn’s censorship kowtow. LinkedIn’s “entry” into China is really about selling (mainly) recruitment advertising to China-based companies. To be able to issue official receipts and to operate a website in China, you need a local company. So LinkedIn had to open a local office and abide by local restrictions. That includes censoring content that users post on its website.

Had LinkedIn decided to forego generating revenue in China, the company would have continued to “connect Chinese professionals to the global business community” - the site was already operational in China, available in Chinese and 4 million users had found it - and, arguably, could have continued to sell recruitment advertising abroad to be delivered back into China.

Instead, they revealed to the entire world that freedom of access to information for Chinese is not as important as making a buck and that Chinese deserve to be treated as second-class global information citizens.

But the biggest loser in this episode may well be the Chinese authorities.

It’s a logical extension for the authorities to ask foreign internet companies to cleanse negative China content globally. If these companies are willing to bend over backwards to get into the country, maybe they could bend a little more.

But now any similar future requests will immediately lead to pushback and a retelling of LinkedIn’s bumbled approach. Although this still must be a tempting request for the authorities - would anything be more pleasing to them than ridding social media of all pro-Tibetan independence posts?

Tibetan Singers Imprisoned by the Chinese for .... Singing.. http://t.co/ZS07x3n9g9

— Thom Yorke (@thomyorke) December 14, 2013

But the authorities larger misstep might just be in the heavy-handedness of their approach. There are few foreign internet success stories in China and the LinkedIn debacle has added to that misery. The alternate approach is just as dim. Google stands at the opposite end of the spectrum as a company that tried different approaches to China. But all signs now point to them having given up on making progress in China.

Google: "There's nothing wrong on our end" - Shenzhen court accepts #China censorship lawsuit http://t.co/qzCaTNPmIq via @nyt

— Kieran Maynard (@KieranMaynard) September 8, 2014

But the authorities may have shown their cards too soon. Two foreign internet giants are standing in the wings watching closely. Neither of the above approaches seems appealing and only the hopelessly optimistic continue to say that “the situation will change, slowly, for the better, just wait and see”. Working with the authorities has proven fruitless.

The situation is not changing for the better. More websites are being blocked, domestic censorship is increasing and the Edward Snowden revelations have just served to entrench China’s decision-makers.

But China’s success in creating domestic internet giants is not exactly as it seems. These internet giants still rely on the global internet infrastructure if they want to serve customers in China and abroad. China’s leading companies leverage global cloud services providers to deliver web content quickly around the world.

At GreatFire.org, we are staging a battle for internet freedom in the cloud. Since we launched “FreeGoogle” in June of this year, the authorities have made consistent daily attempts to shut us down, all without success. To the contrary, our “FreeGoogle” site is used by tens of thousands of Chinese each day, we continue to free blocked content and we are seeing more instances of individuals unblocking their own websites using our technique.

As the authorities place even greater restrictions on foreign internet properties who wish to operate in China, they are giving these companies little room to manoeuvre and pushing them to adopt alternative approaches. Leveraging the global cloud by implementing collateral freedom will effectively turn the tables on the Chinese authorities. They will be left with one of two choices - to allow information to flow freely or to cut China off from the global internet. So far, we have shown that the Chinese authorities are not willing to take the latter step. Here’s hoping that they never do.

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Mon, Aug 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/).

Fri, Jul 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.

Mon, Jun 10, 2019

Apple Censoring Tibetan Information in China

Apple has a long history of censorship when it comes to information about Tibet. In 2009, it was revealed that several apps related to the Dalai Lama were not available in the China App Store. The developers of these apps were not notified that their apps were removed. When confronted with these instances of censorship, an Apple spokesperson simply said that the company “continues to comply with local laws”.

In December, 2017, at a conference in China, when asked about working with the Chinese authorities to censor the Apple App Store, Tim Cook proclaimed:

"Your choice is: do you participate, or do you stand on the sideline and yell at how things should be. And my own view very strongly is you show up and you participate, you get in the arena because nothing ever changes from the sideline."

In the ten years since Apple was first criticized for working with the Chinese authorities to silence already marginalized voices, what has changed? Apple continues to strictly follow the censorship orders of the Chinese authorities. When does Tim Cook expect that his company will help to bring about positive change in China?

Based on data generated from https://applecensorship.com, Apple has now censored 29 popular Tibetan mobile applications in the China App Store. Tibetan-themed apps dealing with news, religious study, tourism, and even games are being censored by Apple. A full list of the censored apps appear below.

Thu, Jun 06, 2019

Report Shines Spotlight on Apple’s Censorship Practices in China

The newest Ranking Digital Rights Corporate Accountability Index makes recommendations on what companies and governments need to do in order to improve the protection of internet users’ human rights around the world. Ranking Digital Rights (RDR) works to promote freedom of expression and privacy on the internet by creating global standards and incentives for companies to respect and protect users’ rights.

In their 2019 Accountability Index, RDR looks at the policies of 24 of the world’s most important internet companies in respect to freedom of expression and privacy and highlights the companies that have made improvements and those companies that need to do more. RDR notes that:

Insufficient transparency makes it easier for private parties, governments, and companies themselves to abuse their power over online speech and avoid accountability.

In particular, the report highlights how Apple has abused their power over online speech, and notes instances of this in China. According to the report, Apple has not disclosed data around the content that it removes from its App Store when faced with requests from the government authorities.

While [Apple] disclosed data about government requests to restrict accounts, it disclosed no data about content removal requests, such as requests to remove apps from its App Store. Apple revealed little about policies and practices affecting freedom of expression, scoring below all other U.S. companies in this category.

The report makes intelligent and sensible recommendations for governments. However, the recommendations also highlight how difficult it is to have these discussions with governments like China’s.

Thu, Nov 30, 2017

About those 674 apps that Apple censored in China

Apple opened the door on its censorship practices in China - but just a crack.
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