China issue changes Microsoft’s blogging stance

If you were ever unsure quite how important the ‘China thing’ is right now, look no further than Microsoft’s latest announcement, stating it has changed its policy on blogging.

In a speech to government officials and community leaders in Lisbon, Portugal, Microsoft Senior Vice President and General Counsel, Brad Smith, said that blogs on MSN Spaces would no longer be removed outright if they contravened local law, but rather access to them would be restricted from the territory in question.

Either way, users in that country won’t have access to the content in breach of that country’s law, and maybe on another day this slight a change wouldn’t make the news.

But this issue involves China. And all the tech companies trying to muscle in on the People’s Republic are being extremely careful about the way they deal with the regime.

Not least Microsoft, whose decision last month to remove the blog of a New York Times researcher based in China at the behest of the Chinese government for his coverage of a newspaper strike caused public outcry.

Now Microsoft says that, along with only blocking access within the country concerned, it will also be transparent about the way this is done, informing those that run up against these barriers of the reason for them.

This aligns with Google’s approach. In order to base its servers on the Chinese soil it too controversially decided to play to the government’s demands and block content. But barred search results carry boiler plate text indicating the restrictions are necessary to comply with the law.

Even so, this also landed Google, of all the US tech giants moving into China, in hot political water. Not least because Google has made statements about the way it does business that are political and ethical; among them that ‘information knows no borders’, and that ‘you can make money without doing evil’.

But Microsoft’s announcement is important. It has gone further than other companies in resisting China’s restrictive policies. And it’s down what it calls ‘explicit standards for protecting content access’.

The Chinese government doesn’t give Google, for example, a list of sites it doesn’t want its civilians to see. In order to continue to do business in China, Google has to guess what content might offend based on a set of criteria, and various government agencies monitor how well it meets them.

So in order to keep its Blogger service restriction free, Google decided not to base its blogging servers in China, thus allowing what has become known as the Great Firewall of China to restrict content when accessed from there.

Microsoft has said that it ‘will remove access to blog content only when it receives a legally binding notice from the government indicating that the material violates local laws, or if the content violates MSN’s terms of use’.

The Chinese agencies will have to first find offending content, and then send Microsoft a separate letter for each instance it finds, putting the onus, and the overhead for content blocking, on Chinese officials.

If the Chinese agencies decide that, in doing this, Microsoft is failing to adequately block the content it doesn’t want available it could shut Microsoft’s MSN Spaces blog service down.

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