Microsoft's long fight with public libraries looks even worse in the new era of socially conscious businesses (MSFT)


Satya Nadella

  • LinkedIn, owned by Microsoft, has changed its terms of use for its LinkedIn Learning career training courses for library patrons. 
  • LinkedIn Learning was formerly the training site, which offers thousands of courses on personal development, career skills and tech skills.
  • For many years it has allowed libraries to let patrons access its catalog with a library card and a pin number.
  • But the company now says users must register for a LinkedIn profile, with name and email, and use that to log in, allowing the company to gather data on them.
  • Libraries spoke out that the new rules violate their patrons’ privacy and may even violate some state laws. Library computers are most used by those below the poverty line, a study from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation once found.
  • LinkedIn, citing safety concerns, responded to the criticism by telling libraries they can either abide by its new rules or stop offering its career training courses to their patrons.
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All summer long, some of the nation’s premier librarians have publicly clashed with Microsoft and its subsidiary LinkedIn. The dispute involves the company’s change the rules for using a career development and training website it owns — a change the  that the libraries say violates people’s privacy.

The website, previously known as, offers thousands of online classes on topics like personal branding, marketing, software development and Web development. It’s been available to library patrons for 20 years. 

Today is know as LinkedIn Learning.

That’s because in 2015, was acquired by LinkedIn. And a year later, in 2016, Microsoft acquired LinkedIn. 

For three years after Microsoft owned the training site, it allowed library patrons to access the Lynda/LinkedIn learning catalog of online classes the way they always have, with just their library card a pin. 

But in June, LinkedIn changed course and announced that all library users would have to sign up for a LinkedIn account and hand over at least their name and email, if not a fully filled out profile, in order to use the Lynda training materials. 

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The libraries were not pleased. They pointed out that requiring library users to register and identify themselves to Microsoft violates not only the librarians sacred principals of privacy — that your library usage patterns are private — but in some cases the law. California has a state law that says in part: “All patron use records of any library … shall remain confidential,” Greg Lucas,  State Librarian of California, pointed out in his editorial about this change.

Librarians argued that by registering on LinkedIn, library patrons will be making themselves publicly searchable, by default, on the internet. LinkedIn replied that LinkedIn users are free to find and apply LinkedIn’s privacy settings, including the one that keeps a LinkedIn profile from being found by search engines Bing and Google.

Such privacy settings, however, do not keep a person’s information given to LinkedIn from being seen and used by LinkedIn itself, and by association by Microsoft. In fact, LinkedIn’s terms of service makes it clear that sharing data with the company gives the company the right to use it for things like serving ads. It uses free accounts to try and upsell people to paid accounts.  

Take it or leave

In July, both the American Library Association and the California State Library recommended that libraries stop offering Lynda to their patrons.

A library activism site called Every Library followed the developments. It reported that, “Erin Berman, Chair of the Intellectual Freedom Committee’s Privacy Subcommittee visited the LinkedIn headquarters in San Francisco and met with their product team. She exchanged abundant emails with their staff, trying to find a workable solution that met the ethical requirements of libraries.”

Even so, in early August, LinkedIn doubled down and told the libraries that it wasn’t going to modify its rules.

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It posted a second message in which it explained, “We’ve listened to feedback from the library community and want to provide some additional background on why we are making these changes. … Profiles help us ensure we give our members a safe, trusted environment where they can interact with real people.”

If libraries didn’t like this new term, it added, they were free to find a catalog of training courses elsewhere. 

“We deeply respect their position and understand if they choose to not use LinkedIn Learning,” that blog post said.

A LinkedIn spokesperson also told ZDNet’s Mary Joe Foley that the company wasn’t insisting that all users of LinkedIn Learnings create LinkedIn accounts. Those corporate and higher education customers, aka companies that paid premium subscription prices, weren’t being held to the same new requirement.

This is because it trusted those customers’ own technology to determine who the users were. “Corporate and higher education customers as they offer authentication solutions that are very difficult to compromise,” the spokesperson said.

To reiterate: LinkedIn was forbidding libraries to allow access to training videos with a library card and pin, because it didn’t know who the users were. It didn’t think it was “safe” to allow these users to continue to access these services, even though it had been providing access to these resources for decades.

Neither LinkedIn nor Microsoft ever really explained what the safety implications were.

Neither acknowledged that a LinkedIn account isn’t a foolproof method of identifying people. LinkedIn has admitted that it has a pretty big fake user profile problem, though it is cracking down on that. It said that between January and June it removed 21.6 million fake accounts and prevented another 19.5 million fake accounts.

The impact is on the poorest people

But there’s something even more sad and baffling about this situation. Think about the socio-economic status of the people who rely on library computers. Particularly if they are coming to the library to take a career development course. A 2010 study paid for by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation found that people living below the federal poverty line had the highest use of library computers. 

This is the third time this summer that Microsoft has been called out by trying to increase its monetization on populations that it has traditionally offered bargains to. This includes ratcheting up fees on CERN, the scientific research organization that found the ‘God Particle’ and where the Web was invented. Those fees were so high CERN has vowed to ditch all its Microsoft tech and teach others how to do so as well.

It also changed a term that would force its reseller business partners to start paying high prices for Microsoft software. A backlash on that caused Microsoft to change its mind and rescind the new fee structure.

And now it is telling libraries that it won’t let patrons continue to use its LinkedIn training materials, like they have for 20 years, unless patrons sign up for a LinkedIn account and allows Microsoft to gather data on them, even if such tracking may violate some state laws.

All of this comes via the backdrop of a change of heart from the Business Roundtable, one of the most powerful pro-corporate lobbying organizations. Earlier this month the group changed the definition of the purpose of a corporation. No longer is its primary purpose to return maximum profit to its shareholders, they said. A corporation’s current purpose is to “benefit of all stakeholders — customers, employees, suppliers, communities and shareholders.”

Some 181 CEOs of the nation’s largest companies signed that definition including the CEOs of Amazon, Apple, BlackRock, IBM, JPMorgan Chase, and Walmart.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella previously told Business Insider, “I think it is important for companies like ours to have a set a principals that governs some of the most important things like privacy, security or immigration and take a stand.”

But guess who isn’t a member of the Business Roundtable and didn’t sign the recent statement? Satya Nadella.

A LinkedIn spokesperson tells Business Insider that this decision was made by LinkedIn, not its owner, Microsoft. The spokesperson sent Business Insider the following statement.

“As part of the migration from, the company we acquired four years ago, to LinkedIn Learning, we now require a profile to access courses on LinkedIn Learning. Profiles help us to authenticate that users are real people and help to ensure we give our members a safe, trusted environment to interact with others and learn. A LinkedIn profile is optional for our corporate and higher education customers as they offer authentication solutions that are very difficult to compromise.

“Every user has the ability to control their profile and can change their privacy settings and they can also choose to not have their profile searchable on search engines. We always respect the decisions of our members and do not share personal data that is restricted by a member’s privacy settings.”

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