January 31, 2006 10:47 AM PST

Microsoft clarifies policy on censoring blogs

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Under fire after censoring a Chinese blogger, Microsoft on Tuesday announced a new policy for dealing with government requests to block content that violates local laws.

Microsoft's new MSN Spaces policy states that the company will remove content only when it "receives a legally binding notice from the government indicating that the material violates local laws" or when the content violates MSN contract terms. When it does take down content, it will only be done in the country issuing the order, and the company said it will also "ensure that users know why that content was blocked."

"We really felt a need to step back and make sure that we are being thoughtful," Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith said in a telephone interview from Lisbon, Portugal, where the new policy was announced at a forum for government leaders.

The move follows a torrent of criticism that was directed at Microsoft after it removed an MSN Spaces blog posted by Chinese journalist Zhao Jing, also known as Michael Anti.

Even some within Microsoft, including corporate blogger Robert Scoble, had spoken up in Anti's defense.

"Guys over at MSN: Sorry, I don't agree with your being used as a state-run thug," Scoble said in a blog posting of his own. "It's one thing to pull a list of words out of a blog using an algorithm. It's another thing to become an agent of a government and censor an entire blogger's work."

Microsoft had previously acknowledged that it had filtered certain words, including "democracy" and "freedom," out of its MSN page in China.

Working within
Smith said the new policy was the result of discussions inside the company as well as with government leaders and advocacy groups, including meetings he had last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Among those he met with was Mary Robinson, the former Irish president and former head of the UN Human Rights Commission.

Smith reiterated the stance taken by Microsoft, and many of its rivals, that it is better to be doing business in China under the restrictions than to boycott the country. Google, for example, last week launched a censored Chinese version of its Web site.

"We certainly think it is better for us to be present around the world rather than not," Smith said. "I emphatically think it is good for us to be offering these services. Part of being present is the obligation to comply with local law."

Smith said more dialogue is needed and added that Microsoft hopes to see the arrival of a broader, industrywide standard on how to handle government regulations.

"This is not a single-country issue, and this is not a single-company issue," Smith said. "At the end of the day, we are going to need a broad set of principles for (the) full range of Internet technology. More steps will be needed to address other technologies."

In addition to engaging in dialogue, Microsoft has been working over the past few weeks on the technology needed to allow the company to block access to a site from within one country, while allowing those in other countries to view the same content, he said.

When Microsoft does block a site, it will post a notice saying that it did so in response to a valid legal order from a local authority. Smith said the new policies will be applied "prospectively," meaning from now on, but declined to say whether Anti's blog, in particular, would be allowed to be seen from other countries.

Amnesty International representative Amy O'Meara said the human rights organization welcomed Smith's suggestion of industrywide standards for handling oppressive government regulations but felt that Microsoft's move represented only a "very small step" toward progress.

"We're pleased to see that a company like Microsoft is responsive to public concerns," she said, "but we still think there's much more to be done to ensure that companies are not complicit in the human rights abuses perpetrated by repressive regimes such as the Chinese government."

CNET News.com's Anne Broache contributed to this report


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It's not going to please everyone...
... but MS seems to have made an excellent policy decision. There
remains to be sen the CHinese response, which could be a "do it
our way on not at all" demand. China isn't expected to act
rationally, the country is not a rational entity, in terns of geo-
politics. It is a self appointed tyranny and that's what the rest of the
world must deal with. At least we're not facing the foolishness of a
Chinese 'Dear Leader'.
Posted by Earl Benser (4310 comments )
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Posted by SystemsJunky (409 comments )
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what if...
every company and every country just ignored China's requests. That would be fun to see.
Posted by (14 comments )
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the company will remove content only when it "receives a legally binding notice from the government indicating that the material violates local laws"

This sounds, on the face of it, as a reasonable stance. However, "locals laws" under a dictatorship do not have the same meaning as in Democratic countries. Do freedom loving people really have to support the laws enforced by a dictatorship?

What Microsoft and other like companies are really doing is trying to put the best face on their attempts to earn money and by collaborating with a dictatorship. Corporations should not be excused from unethical behavior just because they they are money making entities. There would be no "difficult" decisions to be made re censorship if information businesses remained in residence in democratic countries and let people in dictatorships find ways to access the free press.

The Voice of America did not take up residence in the Soviet Union in order to give "better access" to the news to the Soviet people.
Posted by ccr37 (6 comments )
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Ignore China's request
All freedom loving countries and companies should and must ignore the Chinese police state 's request --- it has ignored the whole world request and continued to be beligerent against its people...
Posted by Robert Wiseman (19 comments )
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Now they care...after citizen receives 10 years for using the "D word".
Ah, Billy and Steve...
Noone should know more about the corrosive and chilling effects of government interference/control than Billy. Was there anything recently more sickening than watching Billy squirm under questioning during the Bill Clinton Justice Department/State AG effort to kill Microsoft and to ruin the computing experience for all of us--other than EVERY time Eliot Spitzer gets near a microphone.
I know Google's Sergey, Larry, and Eric, Yahoo's Terry Semel, and the Billy and Steve show at Mr. Softie all view their postion on the citizen murdering Commies in China as morally defensible. It's not! If Yahoo thought it was right to turn over information on a blogger talking about the dreaded "D word" so that they could receive a 10 year sentence, then the don't be evil crowd and Gates/Ballmer should have learned from their profound mistake. They didn't.
When I was blogging on Spaces, I couldn't even write the term Zionism! Despite the UN's insistence (later rescinded by the great John Bolton), Zionism is NOT racism. But to the censors at Microsoft it is (obviously, I quit using the service.)
These are publicly traded companies, so Iunderstand the need to pursue economic opportunities, but when you sell your soul for profit, it's time to look in the mirror. Hopefully, Billy and Stevie will make a better choice than the arrogant boys at "don't be evil."
Posted by ejpasseos (14 comments )
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Lack of intelligence ?!?!
Microsoft is always under fire&
See that, Brazilian President, Mr. LULA made a strike on Microsoft sales giving all support to Open Source in Brazil.
Curiously Microsoft is strongly supporting a seminar that want to close Latin America market to us without any serious advantage to US companies?
See this link...
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.brasiloutsourcing.com.br/centro2006/palestrantes.asp" target="_newWindow">http://www.brasiloutsourcing.com.br/centro2006/palestrantes.asp</a>
At least incautious in a country were IT hours price is twice from INDIA and bribery is the rule...
What to say&
Posted by bluesale (5 comments )
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