Microsoft’s MSN Spaces continues to censor its Chinese language blogs, and has become more aggressive and thorough at censorship since I first checked out MSN’s censorship system last summer. On New Years Eve, MSN Spaces took down the popular blog written by Zhao Jing, aka Michael Anti. Now all you get when you attempt to visit his blog at: http://spaces.msn.com/members/mranti/ is the error message pictured above. (You can see the Google cache of his blog up until Dec.22nd here.)
Note, his blog was TAKEN DOWN by MSN people. Not blocked by the Chinese government.
Anti is one of China’s edgiest journalistic bloggers, often pushing at the boundaries of what is acceptable. (See a recent profile of him here, and an interview with Anti here.) His old blog at the U.S.-hosted Blog-city is believed to have caused the Chinese authorities to block all Blog-city blogs. In the final days of December, Anti became a vocal supporter of journalists at the Beijing Daily News who walked off the job after the top editors were fired for their increasingly daring investigative coverage, including some recent reporting on the recent police shootings of village protestors in the Southern China. (For all the gory details on the current press crackdown click here, here, here, and here.) Roland Soong at ESWN has preserved the original Chinese-language posts of Anti’s Call for a Beijing News Walk Out and his Call to Cancel Beijing News Subscriptions.
Roland also points to the likelihood that MSN’s takedown of Anti’s blog could be the result of dirty politics being played by at least one person at Bokee, China’s largest domestically-owned blog hosting company – and naturally, a business rival of MSN spaces. The ESWN blog has a translation of a column on Bokee’s website which basically denounces MSN for hosting Anti. An excerpt of the column:
Anti's moving over the MSN is a severely deplorable event in the development of Chinese blogging. By moving his blog to MSN, he will influence a group of others to move their blogs to MSN.
Furthermore, we need to reflect: of all the BSP's that Anti has used, how come only MSN was not shut down? Here, we must admire the cunning public relations methods of MSN. We must also think that the Internet supervision departments are negligent about monitoring and controlling blogs, and that they have been lax with respect to MSN. Our bottom line are being backed up step by step, and our market is being eroded step by step.
We issue the call: Rise up, and oppose the Microsoft monopoly of 2.0.
Etc, etc. Basically this author is calling on the authorities to put more pressure on MSN to censor more vigorously. Roland reacts at ESWN:
The Bokee columnist wrote that the government's Internet supervisory department should be paying attention to Anti's blog as well as MSN Spaces. Well, they did. Whether this is the true reason or not (and we will never know for sure), Bokee is going to go down in Internet history as calling in the Internet police to crack down on a blogger for exercising his constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech and the police did just that, and the motivation of Bokee was commercial in nature (that is, they want to use the government's security apparatus to damage MSN Spaces as a competitor). I know that this is one columnist's opinion, but Bokee had better make it very clear that they did not support that opinion AND also they do not support the disappearance of the Anti blog.
This is particularly interesting in light of the observations I made in November on my trip to China: that the Chinese blogging scene is very divided and factionalized, and that the commercial blog hosting companies see people like Anti as a threat to their business.
Now, back to Microsoft’s MSN and what they do, and how…
As it so happens, in mid-December I played around a bit with Chinese language blog-hosting tools to try and get a better idea of how they censor blogger content. I haven’t posted about it yet partially because family business and vacation got in the way, and partially because I wanted to do a few more tests. But given what happened to Anti I think I had better not wait.
Back over the summer I wrote a post titled Screenshots of Censorship about how MSN spaces was censoring the titles of its Chinese blogs, but not posts themselves. According to my testing in mid-late December, they now censoring much more intensely.
On December 16th I created a blog and attempted to make various posts with politically sensitive words. When I attempted to post entries with titles like “Tibet Independence” or “Falun Gong” (a banned religious group), I got an error message saying: “This item includes forbidden language. Please delete forbidden language from this item.”
However I was successful in posting blog entries with non-controversial titles, but with politically sensitive words in the text body. For instance, a blog post titled “I love you” had “Tibet independence” in the text body, and a post titled “I am happy” had “Falun Gong” in the body, like so:
This was on Friday December 16th. By Monday the 19th, the whole blog had been taken down, just like Anti’s was on Dec.31st, with an error message: “This space is temporarily unavailable. Please try again later.”
Now, It is VERY important to note that the inaccessible blog was moved or removed at the server level and that the blog remains inaccessible from the United States as well as from China. This means that the action was taken NOT by Chinese authorities responsible for filtering and censoring the internet for Chinese viewers, but by MSN staff at the level of the MSN servers.
I did similar tests with five other Chinese blog-hosting services. They all work differently when it comes to censoring user content, but they all engage in some form of filtering or censorship of user content. Interestingly, I found that Bokee had no mechanism preventing me from posting anything in the titles or text bodies of the posts. But eventually, blogs with politically sensitive words in them (like “Falun Gong,” “Tiananmen massacre” and “Tibet independence”) were taken down in what appeared to be a human screening process, perhaps assisted by some kind of keyword search or alert system. Other blog hosting services use a combination of automated systems and human procedures similar to MSN’s, although MSN was definitely #1 when it came to full takedown response time. At least one of the services allows you to post anything, but replaces politically sensitive words with “****” when they appear. I have decided not to go into a detailed naming of names and specifics about who censors more strictly and who censors more loosely than whom, since that will only result in some people getting in trouble – or as the Bokee editorial against MSN shows, some blog-hosting companies trying to curry favor with the authorities may try to sic the goons on those who take a lighter-handed approach to, er, user content management…
Can we say, snakepit? It’s actually not uncommon in China for people in one company to actively “tattle” on their rivals and get them into political trouble in order to gain a competitive business advantage. I saw it happen several times in the media and entertainment worlds when I was living and working in Beijing. This is one reason the communist party will stick around longer than many outsiders think. Businesses get greedy and try to manipulate the authoritarian system to their advantage, rather than working together to make the whole thing more fair, accountable, and transparent. Microsoft clearly isn’t taking the high road either.
A slight postscript: John over at Sinosplice has posted an exchange with Roland of ESWN about why ESWN isn’t blocked, and they speculate as to why my blog has been blocked in China for the past several months. John says it is currently not being blocked, or at least not from his ISP (internet service provider). Just to clarify: as far as I know, this blog was inacessible in China because since June all Typepad blogs appeared to have been blocked. When I visited China in November, this blog and all other Typepad blogs I tried to access were blocked. If it is now unblocked, it is because all of Typepad must be unblocked on at least some Chinese ISP’s. I am not aware that my blog has been specifically targeted for filtering up to this point.
UPDATE (12:45pm EST Tuesday): Robert Scoble is angry about MSN's censorship. He is looking into it and has sent a message to his colleagues: "Guys over at MSN: sorry, I don’t agree with your being used as a state-run thug."
He is also inviting Michael Anti to be a guest blogger on his blog.
UPDATE 2 (1:35pm EST Tuesday): Anti has re-started his old blog on Blog-city. It is hosted in the U.S., and it's unlikely that Blog-city administrators would respond to Chinese government appeals to take his blog down given that they do not have a Chinese business. But still, the Blog-city URL is blocked by Chinese ISP's so nobody inside China can see it without using a proxy server. (For more info on how to use proxy servers click here, and for information in Chinese click here.)
To get around the block in China, Anti will be emailing his posts to subscribers. He is also says he is going to resume his English blog at a new URL: Chinathinkbase.com. His English blog has been providing some fascinating translations of recent writings by various Chinese intellectuals on social issues. It's an excellent example of "bridge-blogging" - introducing people in one language group to what's being said in another language by translating, summarizing, and blogging about it. I look forward to seeing more great work from Anti in 2006, despite his troubles.