Connecting Social Media

When one hears persistent squeakings of teeth

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

There has been a great deal of discussion, a pile-on really (as Scoble can attest), about the fact that MSN Spaces is ‘censoring’ certain words such as ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ from being used in specific instances associated with MSN Space-hosted weblogs. This is based on a recent article with the provocative title of “Microsoft bans ‘Democracy’ for China web users”.

From Steve Donohue:

Well, I still hate using them, and it takes me about three times as long to get anything done on a Mac, but this makes me absolutely enraged at Microsoft.

Secular Blasphemy writes:

Microsoft has cowardly decided to ban words like “democracy” and “freedom” in descriptions of personal profiles in blogs at Microsoft Spaces.

NYGirl writes:

How sad, I was hoping that the rise of the internet & blogging will pry open the doors of democracy in China.

This from LaBouilloire Magique (from which Bablefish translation I found this post’s title):

Démocratie et liberté, vous voyez la frontière là ? Si si on sait qu’on l’a atteinte quand on entend les grincements de dents persistants du gouvernement. Et bien, c’est là que vous vous arrêtez. C’est à se demander si le blocage du site de Libération n’est pas dû qu’à son nom un peu trop subversif pour le régime…

Dan Gilmore writes:

It’s easy enough to understand why our craven corporate giants are doing the dictators’ bidding. But Microsoft and Google, like so many others, rose to enormous wealth and influence by leveraging the freedom they enjoy in the United States. They may be serving their shareholders’ interests. But what they’re doing is not honorable. Why does money trump honor? Is this really the American way?

Rebecca MacKinnon writes:

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 空话: empty words. If you believe that Chinese people deserve the same respect as Americans, then please put your money where your mouth is.

Wired writes:

On Monday, Agence France-Presse, the French news agency, said bloggers were not allowed to post terms to MSN Spaces such as “democracy,” “human rights” and “Taiwan independence.” Attempts to enter those words were said to generate a message saying the language was prohibited.

David Weinberger writes:

understand the argument — Google’s, for example — that it’s better to provide limited access to Web services than no access. Of course, that argument happens to work out in favor of the companies’ commercial interests, so it’s tainted. But there’s also a point at which the compromises turn your software into an instrument of control. I don’t know where that point is but it should be making companies intensely uncomfortable.

…Personally, I think there are times when we absolutely do not want to enable other governments to do whatever it is that they want to do. I would not have wanted my company to help enable Apartheid, and I won’t even go back to enabling the legitimate government of Germany in the 1930s. My point is not that the Chinese government should be compared to this or that other regime but that I do not agree with Scoble’s idea that companies have no right to take moral stances against the policies of other governments.

And Tim Bray writes:

Look, there’s nothing in the basic workings of the free market, nor in U.S. legislation, that says MSN can’t be Beijing’s bitch to buy some bloggers. But remember, it is a free market, on this side of the Pacific. So first, I suspect there’s a lot of people—the kind of creative, independent-minded people that Microsoft needs—who’d generally rather not work at a company that does that. And second, there are a lot of other people who’d prefer to avoid buying products from one.

Yesterday Dare Obasanjo noted that there was a great deal of confusion about this issue. He wrote:

I will say two things though. First of all, the behavior of MSN Spaces isn’t something that is tied to any recent ventures in the past month or two by MSN in China as the article purports. In December of last year Boing Boing ran a post entitled Chinese editions of MSN Spaces censor political terms which covers the behavior described in the Financial Times article.

The second is that the response to the initial feedback on the “censorship” on MSN Spaces made by Michael Connolly in his post Comments on Content Moderation is still valid. Specifically he wrote

…Unfortunately, whenever you create an open platform for people to say whatever they want, and open it up to the wide world (14 languages, in 26 different markets), there is always a handful of people who spoil the party, and post a bunch of inappropriate (and in some cases illegal) stuff. And to make matters worse, what exactly is deemed “appropriate” or not is very subjective, not only from person to person, but from country to country

…We block a set of specific words from being used in 3 areas: the url you select, the title of your Space, and the title of your blog entry. These three fields are reused and displayed in a variety of areas, like search results, so we thought it would be a little thing we could do to cut down on the obvious cases that would most easily offend.

What Dare’s post is saying is that the censorship amounts to the material that shows up in the public spaces of the application. This includes the blog title, post title, and the URL.

I noticed that there is a French publication and weblogger who have commented on this. I guess neither is aware that Google, Yahoo, and other search engines are forced to censor certain web sites related to the neo-Nazi movement from the German and French versions of the search engines because of laws passed in those countries.

I’m guessing that most of these commenters would be surprised to learn that pound for pound, internet censorship is practiced as heavily in other ‘freer’ countries. For instance, Australian censorship laws are infamous, with their ambigous definitions of what is or is not objectionable material.

In fact if you look closely most countries have some form of censorship laws on the books related to internet content–not all having to do with pornography. And I even imagine that most people have forgotten that Dave Winer does (or did) censor weblogs that appeared in based purely on their title (My Big Penis, or something like that, is one that comes to mind).

Frankly, I doubt many of our weblogs could pass all internet censorship laws in all countries, or even those implemented at most public libraries. But since my weblog is not called My Big Penis, it will show up on Dave Winer’s

It is not up to our corporations and businesses to fight for freedom and against censorship. Giving such political and legislative power to business can only result in an overall negative experience regardless of the medium, and the internet is no exception. I have found from history that Business is a lousy judge and a worse executioner.

It is up to the people to fight for freedom and laws to protect freedom. We, first, must fight for freedom in our own countries; and then we must take that fight to others: through pressure from our governments and through international organizations such as the UN. Even then, we must be careful to differentiate the freedom that is a basic human right, and the freedom that is a frivolous desire to act without regard to the consequences.

By putting the responsibility to battle for freedom of speech into Microsoft’s (or Google’s or Yahoo’s or any other internet-based content provider’s) hands, we are holding them accountable for enforcing our views without taking any accountability for this on ourselves.

Question: for those of you who have condemned Microsoft for this action, how many of you avoid buying products manufactured, directly or indirectly, in China? If you own Apple products, take a look at the manufacturer’s label. Oh, and be prepared to give up that cute little iPod.

In other words, if you condemn the censorship in China, the place to make a stand starts in your wallet, not in Redmond.

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