Microsoft helps China to censor bloggers

Civil liberties groups have condemned an arrangement between Microsoft and Chinese authorities to censor the internet.

The American company is helping censors remove “freedom” and “democracy” from the net in China with a software package that prevents bloggers from using these and other politically sensitive words on their websites.

The restrictions, which also include an automated denial of “human rights”, are built into MSN Spaces, a blog service launched in China last month by Shanghai MSN Network Communications Technology, a venture in which Microsoft holds a 50% stake.

Users who try to include such terms in subject lines are warned: “This topic contains forbidden words. Please delete them.”

Even the most basic political discussion is difficult because “communism”, “socialism”, and “capitalism” are blocked in this way, although these words can be used in the body of the main text. Many taboo words are predictable, such as “Taiwanese independence”, “Tibet”, “Dalai Lama”, “Falun Gong”, “terrorism” and “massacre”. But there are also quirks that reflect the embryonic nature of net censorship and the propaganda ministry’s perceived threats.

The word “demonstration” is taboo, but “protest” is all right; “democracy” is forbidden, but “anarchy” and “revolution” are acceptable. On MSN Space, Chinese bloggers cannot use the name of their own president, but can comment on Tony Blair. “Tiananmen” cannot be mentioned.

A Microsoft spokesman said the restrictions were the price the company had to pay to spread the positive benefits of blogs and online messaging.

“Even with the filters, we’re helping millions of people communicate, share stories, share photographs and build relationships. For us, that is the key point here,” Adam Sohn, a global sales and marketing director at MSN, told the Associated Press news agency.

For the Chinese government, which employs an estimated 30,000 internet police, the restrictions are an extension of a long-standing policy to control the web so that it can be used by businesses but not by political opponents.

For Microsoft, it appears to be a concession to authoritarianism on the net. It comes only months after Microsoft’s boss, Bill Gates, praised China’s leaders, who have mixed market economics with rigid political control. “It is a brand new form of capitalism, and as a consumer it’s the best thing that ever happened,” he said.

Along with a throng of other net giants, Microsoft is trying to make inroads into China’s fast-growing internet market, expected to top 100 million users this year. Only the United States has more people online, but Mr Gates admitted this year that his company was underperforming in China.

Microsoft is not alone in accepting censorship requests from China. The free-speech group, Reporters Without Borders, says Yahoo has a similar policy. The group said any justification for collaborating with Chinese censorship based on obeying local laws did “not hold water”. The multinationals must “respect certain basic ethical principles” wherever they operated.

China’s information industry ministry, meanwhile, has ordered owners of blogs and bulletin boards to register their sites by the end of this month or have them shut down.

The ministry’s website said: “The internet has profited many people, but it also has brought many problems, such as sex, violence and feudal superstitions and other harmful information that has seriously poisoned people’s spirits.”

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