Microsoft has a new blogging policy that makes some laudable steps toward greater accountability, transparency and respect for the user, as IDG’s reporter Jeremy Kirk recounts the announcement by Microsoft counsel Brad Smith:
Smith said that Microsoft will only remove blogs when given proper legal notice, and even then, will only block access to that material within the country where it is deemed unlawful. The site will still be viewable from outside the country, he said.
Microsoft is readying technology that will allow the blocking of blogs just within a specific country, according to Smith. "We will act when we have the legal duty to do so," he said. "We will act when we are given the kind of notice that clearly makes that duty binding upon us."
Moreover, Microsoft will notify the owner of the blog that the site was removed as a result of a notice from government.
So if this policy had been followed in the Michael Anti case, what would likely have happened? Here’s one possibility: after receiving a call from some authority asking for the blog to be removed, the Microsoft employee handling the call would ask the authority to give their name, department and proper legal notice. Then if Microsoft management determines that the content was indeed violating Chinese law, Zhao’s blog would have been blocked to Internet users in China but not to people accessing the site from elsewhere. Zhao would have been notified by Microsoft as to why his blog was blocked.
There are still many questions outstanding: Would this “proper legal notice” have to be in writing? Or does the word of a cop making a phone call count as “legal notice” in China? I’d like clarification here. In a case similar to Zhao’s, if there truly are legal grounds to block his blog in the first place, would they give him a warning before they block the whole blog – giving him a chance to remove the offending content before his work becomes completely unavailable to his main audience? I’d also like to know whether Microsoft plans to put up a block notice for Chinese users along the lines of: “this page has been blocked to Chinese users in compliance with Chinese law,” or whether they’ll just get a “space not available” error message or similar, making it completely unclear why the page has disappeared? How honest and transparent will they be with Chinese internet users?
(UPDATE 2/1: Microsoft has now confirmed it will provide a notice that the page was blocked and why. More details on Forbes.com here.)
I’m also concerned about the implications of this more sophisticated country-specific blocking. Will this make it even easier for companies to justify complying with censorship around the globe because that censorship can be made more fine-grained and sophisticated? We need to think long and hard about this.
Meanwhile, on the Google front, Danny O’Brien at the Electronic Frontier Foundation some suggested Resolutions for Google in this Chinese New Year. He argues that Google can make up for the damage it has done by collaborating with censorship by working “harder to protect its Chinese users.” Stop collecting and retaining so much user data. Invest heavily in the development of new technologies to circumvent censorship. And “bear witness.” An explanation of that last one:
Google spokespeople have equated its practice in China with its censorship of its results in Germany, France and - in cases of DMCA takedown notices - the United States.
The comparison is inaccurate. Google does remove links in accord with "local laws and regulations," but in all countries except China, it makes some attempt to document what is removed. In particular, Google files details with the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse, an independent site co-run by the EFF and several universities. Censorship is always damaging to freedom; but, in other countries, Google works to mitigate that damage.
In China, the censor list for China is secret; and while Google does give notice when censored search results are presented, they do not provide links to further detailed information as they do when censored by Western states.
Perhaps Google cannot reveal what is being removed. Perhaps that is part of the deal it has struck. No one knows.
Time to be more honest and transparent about the deal, and about exactly what is going on. If they mean it when they say they want to do as little evil as possible, they should publicize their block list and their techniques for blocking, rather than make us guess.
(By the way, if you want to do some fun comparative searching, Check out this cool tool produced by the OpenNet Initiative that enables you to search Google.com and Google.cn simultaneously, and compare the results side by side.)
As all of this unfolds I’m reminded of a book I read back in the 90’s: Timothy Garton Ash’s The File. It’s about what happened with information after the Berlin Wall came down. East Germans were able to access their Stasi police files to see who was ratting on them – in some cases neighbors, lovers, spouses, children, etc. I was living in China when the book came out and described it to my Chinese friends over dinner. One friend said: “Yes, that day will come in China too. Then I’ll know who my real friends are.” The table fell silent for a few moments.
One day, people in China may be able to see the records of conversations between multinational tech companies and the Chinese authorities. What were the exact terms of the deals? Who made them? In what context did these conversations take place? I expect the revelations won’t be too flattering for the companies concerned.
Suggestion to Microsoft, Yahoo!, Google, Cisco, and everybody else doing internet business in China: Be as transparent and accountable as possible now. Conduct every conversation with Chinese authorities under the assumption that one day it will be on the record.