The sentence "we are complying with local laws" is disturbingly becoming the tree behind which a whole forest of business interest and disrespect for individual rights is hiding. It has been used a few months ago by Yahoo when it was discovered that it had provided the Chinese government identifying information about a Chinese journalist who was a user of Yahoo's e-mail service (he's now in prison). By Google when it was accused of filtering its search results so that a search from China on sensitive topics such as "Tibet" would yield none. Now, it has been used by Microsoft to justify the takedown, on New Year's Eve, of the well-known blog of Zhao Jing, also known as Michael Anti, which was hosted by the company's MSN Spaces blogging service. Just days before Zhao Jing had criticized the firing of top-editors at the Beijing Daily News and written in support of a large group of journalists from that newspaper that went on strike (a novelty by itself in China).
It was already known that MSN's blogging tool in China was designed to filter sensitive words: this function is built into the software - censorship is part of the design of the tools! That's scary and scandalous per se, but apparently many bloggers had found ways to express their views anyway. The Zhao Jing affair is a step up: the blog was not blocked or censored by the Chinese authorities, it was taken down by the MSN Spaces team, thrown off the servers, apparently with no warning, period. UPDATE - Anti restarted his blog (in Chinese) here (thanx Patil).
After the affair hit the fan, Microsoft came out with the "complying with local laws"line (see the official statement at the bottom of this SiliconBeat post or this piece from Forbes) (For the record, Robert Scoble, the top corporate blogger at Microsoft, didn't like the censorship and said so).
Rebecca McKinnon at Harvard's Berkman Center did a very interesting analysis and testing of how chinese blogs are censored. Chinese-language blog-hosting services all work differently when it comes to censoring user content, but they all engage in some form of filtering or censorship of user content, she writes. When using words like "Tibet Independence" or "Falun Gong" (the banned religious group) or "Tienanmen massacre" or "democracy", some services would put up an error message saying: "This item includes forbidden language. Please delete forbidden language from this item". Others would let users post anything but, ex-post, blogs with politically sensitive wording would be taken down "in what appeared to be a human screening process, perhaps assisted by some kind of keyword searches or alert systems". Others again simply replace sensitive words with **** when they appear.
Rebecca adds a context (new to me) that's worth knowing: it is possible that part of what prompted the MSN takedown of Zhao Jing's blog could be the result of a calling by someone at a rival blog-hosting service (Bokee) to the government Internet supervisory department to put more pressure on MSN. An editorial on their webpage called the bureaucrats "negligent about controlling and monitoring blogs" and "lax with MSN". There is no way to know if this is the reason of the takedown, but basically that person at Bokee, in order to gain a commercial advantage, was inciting the authorities to be tougher on MSN and to be stricter censors. To a limited Western mind like mine, this is really disturbing. Writes Rebecca:
The Chinese blogging scene is very divided and factionalized, and the commercial blog hosting companies see people like Anti as a threat to their business. (...) It’s actually not uncommon in China for people in one company to actively “tattle” on their rivals and get them into political trouble in order to gain a competitive business advantage. I saw it happen several times in the media and entertainment worlds when I was living and working in Beijing. This is one reason the communist party will stick around longer than many outsiders think. Businesses get greedy and try to manipulate the authoritarian system to their advantage, rather than working together to make the whole thing more fair, accountable, and transparent. Microsoft clearly isn’t taking the high road either.
In another post, she adds:
In my view, this issue goes far beyond China. The behavior of companies like Microsoft, Yahoo! and others - and their eager willingness to comply with Chinese government demands - shows a fundamental lack of respect for users and our fundamental human rights. Do not count on these companies to protect your human rights, if those rights are threatened by the over-stretching hand of any government anywhere on the planet.
Clearly nobody is advocating for these companies to contravene the law of the countries where they operate. But what about standing up? What about saying "no" in the name of freedom of expression, put some lawyers at work and see what happens? I don't think that the Chinese government (which is dependent on foreign investment and foreign demand, particularly from the US, to keep its growth machine going and therefore keep social unrest under control; which owns a large portion of the US public debt; which is moving towards the Beijing Olympics - in two years - and looks at them as a way to shine in front of the world; and which is part of the WTO and has a bunch of rules to respect, too) would just throw Microsoft out of the country.
Another disturbing aspect of the issue is that while these companies are actively participating in the censorship, they're doing so silently. They could, as a first line of defense, comply with the law but announce publicly that the Chinese government asked them to do this or that: instead, nothing; they just put forth justifications when they're caught with the hand in the jar.
Certainly, it may be hard for a single company to take a stand alone, when others operating in the same industry don't and are willing to bend over to please the political demands (although Microsoft is a special company, a highly symbolic one, so it could have dared more than others). There is also an argument to be made that being there is better than not being there: that the Internet is a democratizing force, and some of it in China is more likely to spur freedom of speech than none of it.
But it is a very slippery slope. (Take a look at this photoshopped picture by SheepDog.) It seems to me that the time has come to look at history and check out how (true: after a long compilcit behavior) some Western multinationals teamed up in the 70s to resist immoral and indefensible impositions by the apartheid regime in South Africa and how that highlighted the issue internationally and ended up contributing to the end of that regime. Certainly we are talking about a different scale and a different speed. But like every country has its own laws, every company, particularly when it comes to fundamental human rights such as freedom of expression, should have a moral horizon that's not limited to that "comply with local law" line.