Microsoft Blog Filter for China Fuels Critics

Microsoft is providing Internet software that complies with Chinese censorship rules on blogs... filtering such words as "freedom." Critics have targeted Microsoft's cooperation with "The Great Firewall of China," but others say the practice is pragmatic and largely innocuous.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

Microsoft has come in for some harsh criticism in the past few days for helping the Chinese government censor the Internet. The Chinese version of the company's MSN Service blocks users from using certain words. NPR's Martin Kaste reports from Seattle.

MARTIN KASTE reporting:

Shu Ping Chen(ph), a Chinese national living here in Seattle, was kind enough to help me set up my very first blog in Chinese. Our first posting was about democracy.

Ms. SHU PING CHEN (Chinese National): The subject line says democracy and we type in, `Is there democracy in China?' question mark, in Chinese and let's see what happens. Publish. OK. It says, `This item contains forbidden language. Please delete the forbidden language.'

KASTE: So it's true, then.

Ms. SHU: It's true.

KASTE: The Microsoft blog software also bars other words from the subject line such as `freedom,' `human rights' and `Tiananmen Square massacre,' but it appears to allow those words in the body of the postings. The filter has generated bad publicity for the company around the world. In France, the free-speech group Reporters Without Borders put out a statement saying it was disgusted with the American company. Microsoft would not comment except to issue a statement saying that it abides by the laws, regulations and norms of each country in which it operates.

John Palfrey, an expert on Chinese Internet censorship at Harvard Law School, says the company has little choice.

Mr. JOHN PALFREY (Harvard Law School): Most companies that actually do provide any form of Internet access have had to comply with a very complex set of rules, probably 30 or more Chinese laws. So Microsoft's consistent in that way.

KASTE: Yahoo! is another example of a US company that abides by Beijing censorship laws. Palfrey says companies can avoid censorship if they refrain from setting up operations on Chinese soil. One example is Google. Its Chinese search pages are based in the US, as is its advertising sales office, but that also means that it's harder for the company to sell ads in China.

Mr. PALFREY: I think the bottom line with Google is so far they've tried to maintain their `don't be evil' stance in terms of how they deal with China. But I think as with any large technology company as they seek to derive serious revenues from this huge emerging market, they're going to face exactly the same pressures.

KASTE: And there are those who believe Microsoft's complicity with government censorship is not especially harmful in practice. Mika Truman(ph) has lived in China for 11 years. He runs an Internet-based company in Beijing and he says the government's attempt to filter certain words is not that effective.

Mr. MIKA TRUMAN (Businessman): Most sites are completely accessible. If you can't get news one way, you can certainly get it another. In essence, this is the government's way of saying, `We care about this. We're watching this.' But I think the government is more than clear that this means of censorship is by no means an effective way to shut down discussion of whatever.

KASTE: But other China watchers say the filters which are sometimes known as the great firewall of China are becoming more sophisticated. OpenNet Initiative, an international academic partnership that promotes Internet freedom, recently concluded that the Chinese filters are distorting the information available in China. In one test, the censors managed to block 90 percent of the top Google hits for the phrase `Tiananmen Square.'

The great firewall also affects China's neighbors. Beth Kolko has a National Science Foundation grant to study Internet usage in central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan.

Ms. BETH KOLKO (Researcher): You're working with ISP that runs through China eventually and maybe ultimately it's the speediest network you can get, but you go in one day and you can't access Yahoo! and it's, like, `Oh, well, the Chinese government shut down Yahoo! today. Sorry, you can't get to Yahoo!'

KASTE: Kolko describes Chinese Internet censorship as a game of cat and mouse in which sophisticated Internet users are constantly maneuvering to get around the censors, but she says Microsoft's blogging filter could be seen as taking American companies' cooperation with censorship to a new level. Instead of merely blocking what Internet users can read, she says, Microsoft is now limiting what they can write.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: