June 14, 2005
How do you say “The love of money is the root of all evil” in Mandarin?:—You probably can’t if you are using Microsoft’s blogging software in China. Don’t use the word “democracy” either. Or “freedom.” If you are blogging in Beijing or the high-tech center in Shanghai, and use words that the Chinese government considers offensive, you get a message saying, “Please delete the forbidden speech from this item.” Microsoft banned them from the site so as not to piss off the government. Wouldn’t want to do that. Like most totalitarian governments, the Chinese are terrified of the Internet and the World Wide Web and have every reason to be. It makes the mullahs in Iran simply crazy. The Chinese have been trying to sit on the web for several years and have had no end of willing capitalists to grovel in compliance. There’s plenty of precedent. Rupert Murdoch censors his satellite news shows. You see, making money trumps morality every time, as the Apostle Paul pointed out in that famous, and often misquoted aphorism. Microsoft’s Robert Scobie defended the move thusly:
I have ABSOLUTELY NO BUSINESS forcing the Chinese into a position they don't believe in. I've been to China (as an employee of Winnov about seven years ago). I met with Government officials there. I met with students. I met with professors. They explained their anti-free-speech stance to me and I understand it. I don't agree with it, and I will be happy to explain to anyone the benefits of giving your citizens the right to speak freely, but it's not my place to make their laws. It certainly is not my right to force their hand with business power.
All quite true. But what you see there is a classic example of the straw man argument. No one thinks Microsoft should be telling the Chinese what laws to pass (although they are certainly not shy about doing it elsewhere—like Washington). The issue is whether they should be collaborating in a matter of principle, one critic pointed out, which is what they are doing by playing along. The correct and moral thing to do is say, “no, we won’t do that. Thank you for your consideration.” If Microsoft believed in free speech instead of simply blathering on about it, it would have walked and taken very little time getting around to it. For moral people, it is a no-brainer.
The restrictions affect Microsoft Spaces, which offers blogging space in conjunction with a government-owned agency connected to MSN China portal. According to Agence France-Presse, bloggers are not allowed to use a list of terms on their sites. The government has already issued a requirement demanding that website owners register.
Censors already roam the Internet chat rooms and blogs in the hunt of subversive dialog. Now they have automated the process.
Like all demands of censorship, silliness is the first attribute. Let’s say you are doing a term paper on Lewis Carroll and write: “Alice exercised her freedom in determining whether to follow the rabbit in the hole.” Bounce. How about: “Socrates challenged the Athenian democracy?” Splat. But of course, it is worse than that, it limits political speech in a place that desperately needs more free political speech, and Microsoft is abetting the injustice. Their excuses are pathetic.
See more on John Paczkowski’s Good Morning Silicon Valley here. Microsoft-owned MSNBC is here.