Guest Opinion: Is the Kremlin targeting LinkedIn?

Chicago Tribune
Nov. 26
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Raise your hand if you’re fed up with the steady diet of emails from LinkedIn asking if you want to be added to the professional network of someone you’ve never met. Or how about those annoying emails from LinkedIn connections endorsing a certain “work skill” of yours — as if you needed the validation. It’s relatively harmless, however, and useful for millions of people scouring for jobs.

The Kremlin, however, has weirdly decided to paint a big red bull’s-eye on the social media website. Russia’s communications authority, Roskomnadzor, has blocked LinkedIn from the country’s internet. It’s troubling, and it appears to be yet another reflection of Kremlin hand-wringing over what it perceives is Western meddling in Russian affairs.

Russian authorities say they went after LinkedIn because the website has struggled to maintain users’ privacy. A Russian hacker is under indictment by the U.S. for a 2012 attack on LinkedIn that led to the theft of millions of passwords.

We don’t believe the clampdown on LinkedIn is about privacy.

Ever since citizens took to the streets to protest their government in 2012, President Vladimir Putin and his aides have been fretting about the role social media played in revving up those protests, analysts say. The Kremlin gets nervous when Russians rise up — it doesn’t happen often, and when it does, it means large groups of people are willing to risk riot police truncheons to speak out. LinkedIn appears to be the entity that will serve as Moscow’s warning to other social media giants like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, which have been relied on by demonstration organizers not just in Russia, but around the world.

Over the course of Putin’s rule, the Kremlin has systematically muzzled the Russian media. Western social media, however, operate outside Putin’s reach. At a time when the country’s economy continues to feel the pinch of Western sanctions, the Kremlin likely feels it cannot afford for any seeds of disenchantment to take root.

Roskomnadzor says it simply is enforcing a law passed in 2014 governing websites that maintain personal data about Russian citizens. That law requires those companies to physically relocate the servers that contain Russian citizens’ data onto Russian soil. Up until now, it’s never been enforced.

That explanation is about as genuine as a Putin photo op. If privacy’s the aim, relocating LinkedIn servers that contain the personal data of Russian citizens seems an odd way to shield that data from intruders. How does the physical presence of the servers in Russia shore up privacy?

In any case, LinkedIn is meant to be a conduit for the exchange of personal data — not a firewall to it. It’s all about hawking your job wares on the open market. Most LinkedIn users want their resumes, work histories and career achievements on public display.

Authorities, however, aren’t really interested in what LinkedIn actually does. They’re more interested in the message they can send by blocking the website. “In the future we will use the same mechanism in relation to other companies,” a spokesman for Roskomnadzor said earlier this fall. Some Russian analysts believe the Kremlin has visions of adopting China’s approach, which entails much more extensive control over information disseminated online. The move against LinkedIn appears to be a first step.