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.
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
. 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
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
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
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.”