CHINA: Microsoft Censoring Bloggers

BEIJING - Chinese bloggers using a new Microsoft service to post
messages titled "democracy," "capitalism," "liberty" or "human rights"
are greeted with a bright yellow warning.

"This message includes forbidden language," it scolds. "Please delete the prohibited expression."

The restrictions were agreed upon by Microsoft and its
Chinese partner, the government-linked Shanghai Alliance Investment.
The limits have sparked a debate here and in the online world about how
free speech could be threatened when the world's most powerful software
company forges an alliance with the largest Communist country.


Multinational companies from cigarette makers to baby formula companies
routinely change their advertising and other corporate behavior to
adapt to local laws. Experts say that Internet companies such as
Microsoft are often the focus of controversy because their products are
linked to free speech issues, and many rules governing blogs - or Web
logs - and other electronic speech are evolving.

"There's a
spectrum here," said Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of Harvard's Berkman
Center for Internet & Society and an author of a recent study on
internet censorship in China. "It's one thing to provide a regime with
steel, another to provide bullets, and another to serve as the
executioner."

Executives with the Redmond, Wash.-based
software giant argue that they are only following local laws and any
disadvantage is outweighed by benefits users get from the company's
services.

"Even with the filters, we're helping millions of
people communicate, share stories, share photographs and build
relationships," said Adam Sohn, Microsoft's global sales and marketing
director. "For us, that is the key point here."

Microsoft adds
that filtering objectionable words is nothing new. In the United
States, the company blocks use of several words in titles, including
"whore" and "pornography."

Yahoo and Google, two other large
Internet firms, have also imposed limits on search results in France
and Germany, where Nazi propaganda and memorabilia are banned.


In China, however, censorship is far more extensive. Computer users
often find that filters on servers and search engines, including
Yahoo's, prevent them from accessing pages, posting blogs or receiving
e-mails on topics deemed sensitive by the Communist Party. Repeated
violations can elicit a visit by police, leading in extreme cases to
imprisonment on charges of threatening national security.

Human
rights groups, including Reporters Without Borders, say Microsoft is
sacrificing free speech principles in its headlong quest for profits
and that the company should follow a higher standard.

"No one
should break the law, but at the same time we all believe in universal
values," said Julien Pain, head of the organization's Internet
monitoring group. "If China required underage children to work, would
you do it? Free speech is not an American value or a French value. It's
a human value."

China has in recent months tightened its grip
on the Internet and other media, as well as on scholars and others seen
deviating from the Communist Party line. The nation's 150,000
journalists were recently instructed to attend a one-week ideology
course, according to media reports. And last month, the government
announced new rules requiring that all websites in China be registered.


The current debate raises questions about whether
multinational companies have a duty to help promote political freedoms
in a world where their power and global standing rival many
governments'. Previous debates over corporate conduct have focused on
environmental issues, fair wages and working conditions.

If
international companies do not act roughly the same in various markets,
they leave themselves exposed to charges of hypocrisy, said David
Vidal, research director on global corporate citizenship at the
Conference Board, a nonprofit group that advises management.

"It's obvious that the biggest test case of this will be China," he said.


Microsoft, along with many of its rivals, has made no secret of its
keen interest in China's nearly 100 million Internet users - a market
second only to the United States' - and a software industry that has
grown 380% since 2000, according to government statistics.


Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and Chief Executive Steve Ballmer
repeatedly visited China in recent years, helping to strengthen the
company's relationship with top leaders in a country where connections
are often vital in securing deals. Microsoft's partner in the MSN China
venture, Shanghai Alliance, is run by a son of former Chinese President
Jiang Zemin.

As part of its marketing campaign, Microsoft has
donated software to state-run China Telecom and China's State Economic
and Trade Commission. It has pledged $10 million to be invested in or
donated to China's primary education system. And it has offered to
provide free Windows operating systems to government officials in
Beijing for three years in exchange for its becoming an exclusive
software provider.

Microsoft's new blogging service, MSN
Spaces, has attracted 5 million users in China, the company said. The
service was launched in China on the MSN China portal on May 26.
Computer users frequent the portal for e-mail, shopping, games and
online English classes.

Microsoft has agreed to restrict words
on the site by using guidelines outlined by China's Communist Party.
Many terms banned in the subject lines of postings on Spaces are not
surprising: "Dalai Lama"; "Tibet"; "Falun Gong," a religious group
outlawed by Beijing; and "June 4th," the way Chinese refer to the 1989
Tiananmen Square crackdown on protesters demanding political freedoms.


But some aspects of the filtering appear to be arbitrary. Even as
"demonstration" and "violent chaos" are blocked, "riot" and "violent
uprising" are not. "Separatism" is forbidden, but "independence" is
fine. And some terms are allowed in the body of a message, but not in
subject lines.

In addition to Microsoft and Yahoo, Amazon, EBay
and a host of other Western high-tech companies are piling into China,
lured by the nation's 1.3 billion consumers and rapid economic growth.
Along the way, many have agreed to or are considering similar
censorship arrangements with the government.

"All Internet
companies that deal with China voluntarily sign agreements that their
Web manager will censor any content on their website," said Anne-Marie
Brady, a China media expert at New Zealand's University of Canterbury.
"China is so hot, companies just can't keep away. In China, money
talks."

Zittrain's April study on censorship in China
concluded that Chinese laws are so vague that many companies feel
obliged to act conservatively, fearing that they may be barred from
doing business or their employees arrested. Internet content providers,
a category that includes MSN China and Yahoo, are required by law to
monitor postings and remove any illegal or inappropriate content.


Yahoo's senior international counsel, Mary Wirth, said Yahoo is only
following the rules when it drops links to pages containing
objectionable material. "We do not go at all beyond what Chinese law
requires," she said.

Although bloggers from Singapore to
Britain have condemned Microsoft's decision to restrict words in its
blogs, the issue has received far less attention inside China. A search
of Chinese-language chat sites this week found few entries on the
subject, probably because discussions were shut down by the nation's
estimated 30,000 cyber police or because filtering is so widespread
that Chinese found nothing unusual in Microsoft's decision.


Television network employee Yang Jie, 29, said he enjoys the idea of
having a small piece of virtual territory where he can plant whatever
he wants, "so long as it doesn't touch on subjects overly sensitive to
the ruling Communist Party."

Yang uses his blog to write about movies, books and sports, but generally steers clear of politics.


He isn't particularly bothered by China's filtering policy, he said,
except occasionally when he wants to write on issues such as the
1937-38 Nanjing massacre by Japanese forces, which could fan passions,
and is forced to use code words or indirect references.

When it comes to Microsoft, however, Yang believes that the company is doing the right thing.


"It's natural for companies to adjust their practices in foreign
countries to get profits," he said. "As they say in politics, there are
no permanent friends, just permanent interests."


Magnier reported from Beijing and Menn from San Francisco.

AMP Section Name:Technology & Telecommunications

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