China's `Great Firewall'

June 23, 2005

REMEMBER NOT that long ago when it was morning on the Internet, there was a vast new world of possibilities, and Microsoft Corp. captured all that by asking in its ads, "Where do you want to go today?" Today, Microsoft is working closely with Chinese government censors to make sure Chinese bloggers don't take their readers' minds where Beijing doesn't want them to go - by blocking postings with certain dangerous words, such as "human rights," "freedom" and "democracy."

The restrictions apply to postings on Microsoft's blog-hosting service in China, MSN Spaces, which has already attracted 5 million Chinese, or about one-twentieth of the Internet users in the world's largest nation - a potentially lucrative toehold for the world's largest software firm. But at what price? Selling out core American values - starting with free speech - for the lure of vast profits in China not only aids Beijing's repression but also damages Microsoft's credibility worldwide.

Other Internet service companies - Yahoo and Google - have been accused of participating in China's "Great Firewall," Beijing's Big Brother system of keyword filtering and user monitoring to limit the cyber-paths and information available to its 1.3 billion citizens, a fifth of the world. But for the most part, China's restrictions have been imposed by Beijing on Yahoo and Google, whereas Microsoft's Shanghai-based joint venture is said to have built the censorship mechanisms into its own computers. It's the difference between doing business under a changing but still repressive system and doing business by sustaining that system with active collaboration.

In response to criticism, Microsoft has justified this big misstep by saying it's simply adhering to China's laws. Even more galling, one of the company's more prominent bloggers, an employee named Robert Scoble, actually suggested in a June 12 posting that many Chinese don't believe in free speech and thus Microsoft shouldn't put itself in the position of foisting it on China - an assertion so ill-founded as to be offensive. Mr. Scoble also wrote something a lot closer to the truth of this matter when he noted, from the perspective of a Microsoft shareholder, that the company needs to do business in China.

Indeed, like so many other multinational companies, Microsoft does need to cultivate the Chinese market. We wonder, though, what Microsoft's leaders think they will gain by offering a sham: a cyber-forum for the publication and exchange of thoughts that is heavily restricted. Does the firm think that China's Internet users - increasingly adept at evading the government's army of online censors - will have trouble figuring out whose side Microsoft's really on?

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