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Microsoft complicit in state censorship?

Global Voices Online has been abuzz lately with discussions of MSN Spaces’ Chinese blog service, and how it censors words like “freedom” in blog titles. Rebecca MacKinnon has been especially prolific on the subject, with the following posts:

China Update: more on blog registration and censorship 6/12

Microsoft has launched a Chinese-language version of it’s Spaces blog hosting service, and guess what? Users are banned from using the word “democracy” and other politically sensitive words to label their blogs – although it does appear possible to use those words within blog posts, for now. (As noted in my interview with Isaac Mao, people who set up blogs under this service don’t have to register with the authorities because MSN is already obliging the government by policing their content.) But then, MSN is already in the censorship game even in the U.S., as Boing Boing discovered soon after the service’s launch.

My response to Scoble [on her own blog] 6/14

I lived in China for nine years straight as a journalist, and if you add up other times I’ve lived there it comes to nearly 12. I don’t know what students and professors Scoble met with, and what context he met them in. But to state that Chinese students and professors have an “anti-free-speech stance” is the biggest pile of horseshit about China I’ve come across in quite some time. And believe me, there are a great many such piles out there these days.

In my experience, most Chinese, like all other human beings I’ve ever met, would very much like to have freedom of speech. This goes for students, professors, workers, farmers, retirees, religious practitioners, and even many government officials. Many said so to me in on-the-record interviews. Many more told me so privately, in trusted confidence over beers (or something stronger) among friends.

What they don’t want is to lose their jobs and educational opportunities by pushing too hard at the restrictions their government has placed on their ability to speak. They work within the bounds of the possible, and since people in China can say a lot more now than they were allowed to say 20 years ago, most take the long-term view.

How To Hack Chinese MSN Spaces to Use Banned Words 6/15

Thanks to Bennett Haselton of Peacefire.org for the following public service instructions for Chinese users wanting to circumvent the word filters on MSN Spaces China to put e.g. “democracy” in the title of their blogs.

[…]

WARNING! Even though you can use these instructions to insert banned words into the title of your Chinese blog, Internet access in China is still monitored and controlled by the government. If you use these instructions to post banned material, you should not publish your blog from an Internet terminal where your actions could be traced back to you personally, and you should not publish anything on your blog that could be used to identify you. You should also use a HotMail.com address that doesn’t identify you by your real name (create a new HotMail.com account if necessary).

Screenshots of Censorship 6/16

Some Chinese bloggers have said that they were able to set up Chinese language MSN Spaces blogs using the “forbidden” political words. To clarify the situation I tried to set up my own freedom loving Chinese blog. I went into the MSN Spaces Chinese interface at: http://spaces.msn.com/?mkt=zh-cn, and tried to set up a blog titled 我?言?自由人?和民主, which means “I love freedom of speech, human rights, and democracy.”

Chinese Bloggers on Censorship, MSN, Etc. 6/17

One thing many people may not realize is that Microsoft has a long history of p.r. problems in China, and that the “anti-Microsoft monopoly” sentiment is very strong both in parts of the Chinese government bureaucracy (who don’t want to be overly dependent on foreign software and thus prefer Linux-based systems for national security reasons) as well as amongst independent Chinese techies and bloggers who are concerned about the concentration of too much power in one foreign software company – which many believe is stifling the emergence of a homegrown software industry.

I have to say, her argument against Microsoft’s Scoble makes sense:

I agree with Scoble: no outsiders, including Microsoft, can force China to change. But nobody’s asking Microsoft to force China to do anything. The issue is whether Microsoft should be collaborating with the Chinese regime as it builds an increasingly sophisticated system of Internet censorship and control. (See this ONI report for lots of details on that system.) Declining to collaborate with this system is not “forcing the Chinese into a position they don’t believe in.” Declining to collaborate would be the only way to show that your stated belief in free speech is more than 空?: empty words. If you believe that Chinese people deserve the same respect as Americans, then please put your money where your mouth is.

This is an interesting situation to watch develop. In the meantime, won’t you join me (and others) in boycotting MSN Spaces? There’s no good reason to use the service, anyway.

[Please excuse the question marks in the Chinese characters in this post. When I switch to WordPress, hopefully I will be able to display all characters correctly. As it is now, if I change the charset to UTF-8, all my Japanese posts come out wonky, so I’m not going to mess with it until the shift.]