Microsoft Defends Censorship of Political Speech in China

by Roger Alford

Earlier I posted on Microsoft’s major ethical lapse of aiding and abetting the infringement of basic civil liberties in China. Most recently, as reported in the New York Times, without warning Microsoft shut down a blog for reporting breaking news without commentary regarding the firing of an editor at Beijing News.
Microsoft’s response is that “As a multi-national business, Microsoft operates in countries around the world. Inline with Microsoft practices in global markets, MSN is committed to ensuring that products and services comply with global and local laws, norms, and industry practices. Most countries have laws and practices that require companies providing online services to make the internet safe for local users. Occasionally, as in China, local laws and practices require consideration of unique elements.”
Microsoft staff members are now wading into the debate, see here and here. The posting by Alfred Thompson, who reportedly works in Microsoft’s “academic relations department,” reads like a company shill blog. But of greater importance is the response of Michael Connolly, a product unit manager at MSN Spaces, who provides this more forthright justification:
Running a Service in China
Robert Scoble recently highlighted one of the more complicated issues we face here on the Spaces team: running a service in a country like China.

As I have described in a previous post, there are two main ways we moderate content on Spaces:

Through the “report abuse” link at the bottom of every space. If you see inappropriate content, such as pornography, or out-right illegal content, like hate-speech or child pornography, let us know and we’ll investigate the problem and take appropriate action. Our main filter we use is, is this blog adhering to our Code of Conduct?
We ban a set of “naughty” words from blog entry titles, so those who are maturity-challenged don’t use the F word all over the place, and show up in search results and the updated spaces list, spoiling the party for everyone.
This system has been what we have been using since we launched Spaces, and we have not changed our practice, nor gotten more aggressive in the way we moderate. It’s been working for us, and for the Spaces community.

We are an international service, and we work hard to comply with the local laws (for illegal content) and local cultural norms (for inappropriate content) in all the markets we operate in. So, when using our two moderating techniques, we are cognizant of what market the content is published in. There are certain rules we have that generally apply to all markets: for instance, no pornography. We just didn’t want to go there with MSN Spaces. But, there are other guidelines that are more market-specific. For instance, the “middle finger” is a very obscene gesture in some areas, and is deemed culturally inappropriate, while in the United States, you would be hard pressed to see any photo of a bunch of college kids where one of them isn’t flipping the camera the bird. No harm, no foul. We don’t want to rule out the middle finger in all markets, so we just do it in the ones where it’s beyond the pale. And, even in the markets that don’t approve of the middle finger, we give the poster a friendly warning about the image, as opposed to taking the site down immediately.

In China, there is a unique issue for our entire industry: there are certain aspects of speech in China that are regulated by the government. We’ve made a choice to run a service in China, and to do that, we need to adhere to local regulations and laws. This is not unique to MSN Spaces; this is something that every company has to do if they operate in China. So, if a Chinese blog on MSN Spaces is reported to us by the community, or the Chinese government, as offensive, we have to ask ourselves: is this blog adhering to our code of Conduct? In many cases, the answer is “yes, this site is fine”. But, in some cases, the answer is “no”. And when an offense is found that actually breaks a national law, we have no choice but to take down the site. A very similar issue was raised in the blogosphere in regards to how Google tackles this problem: a really good discussion on Slashdot ensued, it’s worth a read if you have
some time.

Where do I begin critiquing this defense? In essence, Microsoft’s Michael Connolly’s response is as follows:
1. Prior Restraints R Us. We’ve used this system since we launched Spaces, and we have not changed our practice, and we don’t plan to change now just because it is clear that fundamental political speech rights are now at issue.
2. Speech is Speech. We make no attempt to distinguish between sexual speech, commercial speech, and political speech. Any “offensive” speech is subject to monitoring and censorship. We can’t have any political bloggers in China “spoiling the party for everyone.”
3. Only Obscene Speech Gets “Friendly Warnings.” Obscene speech enjoys greater protections than political speech. We give prior warnings to a blogger who posts an obscene image, but a political post by a Chinese blogger will be shut down without warning.
4. Everybody Does It. Microsoft is not alone in censoring political speech in China. Google does it. So does Yahoo. Everyone has to kowtow to Chinese authorities if you want to run an Internet business in China. We are helpless.
5. Due Process, What’s That? If Chinese authorities contact us and inform us that a political post is “offensive,” then ipso facto the Chinese political blogger has violated national law and we have “no choice but to take down the site.” Never mind that no law or regulation has been cited by the Chinese authorities that was transgressed. Never mind that no judicial process was afforded to the blogger to establish that the post was in fact a violation of national law.
6. China Poses “Unique Issues.” We have to respect that China is different from other countries. It severely regulates “certain aspects of speech.” Just like South Africa posed “unique issues” in the 1980s. I suppose we could follow the lead of corporations who did business in South Africa and took a stand against apartheid by implementing the Sullivan Principles of Social Responsibility. But believe me, we have no choice but to aid and abet the infringement of fundamental free speech rights if we want to do business in China.
Thankfully, Robert Scoble, Microsoft’s internal ombudsman blogger, has a post that does not try to defend the practice. “I’ve been raised by people who taught me the value of standing up for the little guy. My mom grew up in Germany. Her mom stood up to the Nazis… Oh, and … Zhao Jing, aka Michael Anti I’d like to offer you a guest blog here on my blog. I won’t censor you and you can write whatever you’d like. Guys over at MSN: sorry, I don’t agree with your being used as a state-run thug.”

10 Responses

  1. So you think that companies can and should pick and choose the laws they follow. Interesting. I can only assume that you opposed the 90’s anti-trust actions against Microsoft as the company was only doing what it believed was right and legal. Btw since you claim that no legal justification was given by the Chinese government than you must know what the Chinese government did say. What did they say and why did you not report it?

  2. “So you think that companies can and should pick and choose the laws they follow?”

    As I’ve posted here:

    I’m sorry, but this sort of argument just doesn’t wash with me. The very nature of human rights, as they have developed since – and because of – the second world war is that they are universal, indivisible and inalienable.

    Human rights are not market-led: they are universally applicable, and derive from the inherent dignity of the human being. If they were market-led, then the logical outcome would be that the world would still be stuck in 19th-century laissez faire utilitarian societies, with Dickensian working conditions and rights (or lack thereof), with slavery and bonded labour a norm, because the market “dictates” it should be so. It may sound like hyperbole, but I don’t think so, especially since Dickensian working conditions and rights (or lack thereof), with slavery and bonded labour continue to exist in the world today – and that is with the existance of basic human rights standards, labour rights, etc., etc. supposedly at work.

    But I digress a little. Getting back to basic standards of human rights and freedoms, I don’t think it’s good enough for a company or corporation to start citing contractual clauses or terms of use to justify the suppression of speech, “local laws” notwithstanding. Such rules, regulations and guidelines are not – newsflash! – superior to basic human rights standards, nor do they take precedence. Even applying a little bit of “corporate social responsibility” might make things a tad more reasonable. But of course, money talks. Free speech, how are ya..?

  3. Mr. Thompson,

    Thank you for your comments. Regarding what justification the Chinese authorities gave to Microsoft, of course, Microsoft alone is in possession of this information. It has been days and Microsoft has not offered this background information to the public. Tell us, then, (1) what Chinese authority contacted Microsoft about Mr. An Ti; (2) did they order or request the blog be shut down; (3) what legal justification did they provide; (4) what was Microsoft’s response; (5) what was Microsoft legal counsel’s response; (6) did Microsoft legal counsel agree with this assessment that a national law had been broken; (7) what notice did Microsoft provide Mr. Ti before shutting the blog down. We who are by no means knee-jerk skeptics of multi-national corporations would greatly appreciate this background information to help us judge your behavior better.

    As for your antitrust analogy, would that Microsoft acted the same here. Microsoft vigorously defended its understanding of the law, spent years in litigation and millions of dollars to establish that its legal position was correct, and following years of Justice Department litigation, and federal appeals, Microsoft obeyed the law after it had exhausted its litigation options. Are you suggesting that perhaps Microsoft erred in vigorously defending itself in the antitrust litigation? Should Microsoft have just obeyed the government the moment the Justice Department contacted it and declared that its competititive practices were offensive?

  4. Excellent points. I raised this same issue, even using the same example, when Google changed their TOS last month. People thought my example was not likely to happen… how soon it does. I would love to have your opinion on:



  5. OK so at least one person here does believe that companies can and should pick and choose what laws to obey. Well as long as the company agrees with their idea of right and wrong.

    I do not know what government agency contacted Microsoft, what law was broken or who made the determination to agree to what actions. But since I am told that those things did happen by reliable sources I believe that it did happen. You seem to believe that it didn’t and I don’t quite understand why you believe that.

    We are not talking about *my* behavior BTW. I had no more to do with this decision than you did. And I don’t more about it than what I read on the Internet.

    As for the anti-trust issue I do believe that the government acted wrong and immorally and that the case was wrongly decided. But at the same time I do believe that Microsoft should have responded very differently and probably should have found ways to settle earlier. Yes, even though the government was wrong.

    Still the anti-trust case shows that even in a free society being right is not enough to win in court. Do you think that MSFT would have had a better chance of winning in a Chinese court? If so, why?

    While we are at it. What do you think would have been the Chinese reponse to a refusal to deal with this blog in the way it was handled? Surely if you have thought about this at all you have some idea.

  6. The issue that Microsoft is addressing is how much they will collaborate with Chinese authorities to censor fundamental political speech. Why, for example, are the blogs removed at the server level, such that they are inaccessible worldwide once removed? It is because Microsoft is directly collaborating in the global censorship of Chinese bloggers, rather than forcing the Chinese government to filter and censor for Chinese viewers only. This makes it difficult for those in China to access the political blogs using proxy servers.

    Obviously Microsoft will say no to some things. Chinese authorities no doubt would delight if all criticism of China on all MSN Spaces blogs, including those by Chinese nationals outside China, was completely stifled. But Microsoft will not allow that (I would presume) even though China might have a claim to such authority over their nationals living abroad. So Microsoft is drawing certain lines, it is just hard to argue that their current practice in China comports with good corporate citizenship. Which is disheartening, given that Bill Gates richly deserved the Person of the Year Award for his recent efforts, and to many the recent news about Microsoft will squandor some of that good will.

    Regarding your “behavior,” I was, of course, speaking about Microsoft. I understand that your title is “Academic Developer Evangelist with Microsoft Corporation”, which is an ambiguous title, but I take it means that among other things you read, write, and comment on the blogosphere for pay for Microsoft.

  7. Well consider this. Many Europeans disagree with our policies on the death penalty, gun control, the environment, and separation of church and state. Would it be okay for European companies, doing business on American soil, to openly resist our laws?

    The reality is, few countries dare to criticize American policy. Yet we feel compelled to impose some vague conception of “universal human rights” on the world. It is sheer arrogance on our part.

    The Chinese government is not subject to our Constitution. It has its own ideas about how much “political speech” should be allowed, when “prior restraint” is appropriate, and what “due process” means, and its choices should be respected. If the Chinese people have a problem with their government, it is up to them to bring about political change. Not us. Certainly not Microsoft.

  8. Igots,

    The examples you give do not represent recognized international obligations under the major human rights treaties. But even if, say, the death penalty was a violation of recognized international human rights norms, the European practice is to refuse to participate in it. European nations will not extradite someone to the United States for a capital offense until they secure assurances from the United States that the person will not be subject to the death penalty. So they take affirmative steps to avoid collaborating with conduct they find reprehensible.

  9. This is simply the neoclassical economist’s amorality of profit. But for Microsoft’s acquiescence in repression of political dissent, it might not have the opportunity to exploit China’s market. Justifying Microsoft’s collaboration as a stand against humanitarian imperialism is self-serving hyperbole. Microsoft’s social irresponsibility is slightly less repugnant than blood diamond traffickers, Unocal’s Burma slave labor project, and Enron’s Dabhol Power project. The far end of the spectrum includes the Zyklon Nuremberg IMT cases. It’s only a difference of degree. Hopefully, the international community will eventually recognize this business model as the criminally complicit deprivation of human rights that it is, public relations sophistries notwithstanding.

  10. Extradition is different; it is state action. Microsoft its not a US agent. Corporations are better seen as private indivduals w/o nationalistic ties. What we’re doing is criticizing a private–though rich–American expat for not spreading American values overseas. If you are not a shareholder, why should he listen?

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