(New York, NY) — PEN America today said that by blocking or otherwise censoring the LinkedIn profiles of journalists, activists, and writers, the company is capitulating to state-influenced censorship.

“It’s hard to conceive of any explanation for this action other than an American tech firm censoring its users at the apparent behest of the Chinese government,” said PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel. “This appears to be an alarming and unabashed capitulation to censorship from a company that claims to prize democracy and freedom of expression. If LinkedIn’s behavior is normalized, it sends a message to companies across the globe that it is business as usual to enforce Beijing’s censorship demands globally. This is a flashing red light that unless big tech firms like LinkedIn—owned by Microsoft—stand up to censorship, free speech worldwide will suffer.”  

“The effect of LinkedIn’s actions is to extend China’s net of censorship across national borders, reaching deep into free societies to chill and punish  criticism of Beijing,” Nossel continued. “We call on LinkedIn and Microsoft to clarify their actions, lift baseless account suspensions and affirm their commitment to upholding the speech rights of users everywhere.” 

On Tuesday, Axios journalist Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian tweeted a screenshot of a message from LinkedIn, informing her that, due to the “prohibited content” in her profile, her profile and public activity would be blocked in China. Allen-Ebrahimian’s profile includes information about her journalistic work covering mass internment camps in Xinjiang, the operations of Chinese intelligence services, and China’s role in the world.  

The LinkedIn message also offered to “work with you to minimize the impact and … review your profile’s accessibility within China if you update the Summary section of your profile,” appearing to indicate that LinkedIn staff would work with blocked users to ensure their self-summaries complied with Chinese censorship regulations. Allen-Ebrahimian, sharing her reactions on Twitter, wrote “Linkedin appears to offer a free self-censorship consulting service.”

At least one other journalist has reportedly received a similar LinkedIn alert within the past few days. Journalist Melissa Chan, who has worked with outlets including Vice and Deutsche Welle, similarly shared on Twitter a portion of an identical LinkedIn message. Chan commented that the reason her profile was blocked “Could be many things—from this year’s piece about Uyghurs in exile, to my essay on democracy.” Author and editor Greg C. Bruno, who has written a book about the Tibetan diaspora, similarly shared on Twitter a portion of an identical LinkedIn message, writing “It took #Chinese censors three years, but my book #BlessingsFromBeijing has just now been labelled “prohibited content” by @LinkedIn in China.”

LinkedIn is allowed to operate in China, unlike many other social media networks headquartered outside the country. In March, Chinese internet regulators reportedly rebuked LinkedIn executives for insufficiently censoring political content on their site. In the wake of this rebuke, academics, journalists, and other China-watchers have reportedly increasingly found their profiles censored in China. Among those censored is the Swedish journalist Jojje Olsson, whose journalism work includes his close coverage of the detention in China of Swedish publisher Gui Minhai, who was kidnapped from Thailand by Chinese security agents in 2015, and who is currently serving a ten-year sentence on pretextual criminal charges.

PEN America’s long-running engagement on freedom of expression in China has increasingly included activism and analysis on the increasingly extra-territorial nature of Chinese censorship. In 2018, the organization sent an open letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai about the company’s ill-conceived efforts to launch a filtered search engine in China. Its in-depth research includes five major reports over six years about the state of online censorship in China and the influence of Chinese authorities on U.S. industries including filmmaking. Earlier this year, PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel gave expert testimony before the US International Trade Commission on the effects of Chinese and other censorship practices on American businesses.