More Hazards on Blogging in China

by Roger Alford

Disturbing news coming out of China that Microsoft has shut down a blog in China because of its political reporting. The blog is run by Zhao Jing under the blog name An Ti. If you go to An Ti’s blog now here is what it says: “The space is temporarily unavailable. Please try again later.”

So what was the offense? As reported in the New York Times:

The blog was removed last week from a Microsoft service called MSN Spaces after the blog discussed the firing of the independent-minded editor of The Beijing News, which prompted 100 journalists at the paper to go on strike Dec. 29. It was an unusual show of solidarity for a Chinese news organization in an industry that has complied with tight restrictions on what can be published…. Mr. Zhao said in an interview Thursday that Microsoft chose to delete his blog on Dec. 30 with no warning. “I didn’t even say I supported the strike,” he said. “This action by Microsoft infringed upon my freedom of speech. They even deleted my blog and gave me no chance to back up my files without any warning.”

What is Microsoft doing collaborating with China to stifle fundamental free speech rights? A blogger is providing breaking news without commentary and he is shut down? Perhaps the Person of the Year Bill Gates should turn his attention to matters outside Africa and look to what his company is doing to aid and abet the infringement of basic civil liberties in China.
UPDATE: One of the comments provides a useful link to a proposal from Reporters Without Borders to address the problem of Internet companies who aid and abet the infringement of free speech rights. The article gives numerous examples of Internet companies’ “ethical lapses” and offers a proposal for a legislative fix. Definitely worth a read.
http://opiniojuris.org/2006/01/06/more-hazards-on-blogging-in-china/

5 Responses

  1. Roger:

    I’m not so sure the issue is as simple as you make it out to be. While it does seem that US companies are cooperating with China to supress civil liberties in order to secure market access, what if that market access eventually transforms China into a more liberal society? This is the logic of the democratic peace argument, generally, and of the US strategy of engagement, more specifically. As China becomes increasingly integrated into the global economy and develops more of a stake in the status quo, so the argument goes, it will gradually adopt policies more in line with western standards. If this argument is correct, should those potential future benefits be sacrificed for the short run protection of one individual’s blog?

  2. Seth,

    Perhaps you are correct. Perhaps incremental progress through market access is the best approach.

    I actually think the best argument to justify Microsoft’s behavior is a contractual one. The MSN spaces Code of Conduct (http://spaces.msn.com/coc.aspx) says that:

    “Violations of the MSN Spaces Code of Conduct may result in the termination of access to MSN Spaces services or deletion of content without notice. You will not upload, post, transmit, transfer, disseminate, distribute, or facilitate distribution of any content, including text, images, sound, data, information, or software, that: … is illegal or violates any local and national laws that apply to your location.”

    So all Microsoft is doing is implementing an international strategy of compliance with local law. When Chinese authorities indicated the blog’s political reporting was illegal, it shut the blog down pursuant to its contractual right.

    But that argument just says that Microsoft had the contractual right to shut the blog down. It doesn’t speak to the discretion it exercised in doing so.

    I would think that all it will take is for one blog host to take a stand. Then all the Chinese blogs will migrate to that website and blog from there. Maybe Microsoft is not the right company to do that. Perhaps blogger.com, owned by Google (which has less of a corporate presence in China) is better. But if one blog host website takes a stand it will minimize the problem for Chinese bloggers.

    Roger Alford

  3. Roger:

    That seems right. If, in fact (I don’t know so I’ll take your word for it), Google has much less of a market presence in China and wouldn’t be subject to as much government pressure as is Microsoft, and if blogs migrated and congregated on a Google site, China could be forced to choose between controlling speech and allowing Internet access. The hope is that as China becomes more connected to the international economy and as Chinese businessmen become more dependent on free-flowing information, China would prefer expanding economic gains to maintaining political control (this is known as the political paradox of economic development: strengthening a national economy requires loosening the ties of government). Of course, this doesn’t always happen. If the “threat” of the information and/or liberties is perceived to be sufficiently strong, the state will prefer to enforce its control, as in Tiananmen Square. The process isn’t perfect, but it does seem to be moving in the right direction.

  4. When a corporation does business in a foreign country, it is subject to foreign laws, not US laws. For example, I would expect Sony to cooperate with our Justice Department to prosecute US antitrust violations, even if such practices are legal in Japan.

    We must remember that our position on political speech is unique to our country and it infringes on foreign sovereignty to force our style of government onto them.

  5. Reporters sans Frontières have an interesting article, entitled “Do Internet companies need to be regulated to ensure they respect free expression?” here: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=16110

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