Seth Faison, formerly a NYT correspondent in China, has a great Op-Ed in the LA Times about why Microsoft and others have gone too far trying to please Chinese authorities in the censorship game. I know Seth. He speaks fabulous Chinese and has a very in-depth understanding of how things work over there. He writes:
Doing business in China requires flexibility. The law, where it exists, is often irrelevant; it is the decision-making of individual officials that matters. Western businesses sometimes have to bend over backward to please officials in order to secure access to China's enormous market. Sometimes they go too far — and this appears to be one of those times.
Late last month, Microsoft deleted a blog from the MSN online service after the author, a Chinese journalist using the name "Anti," applauded striking journalists at the Beijing News who were protesting the firing of their independent-minded editor. A strike at a Beijing newspaper is not a common event. But it is not a politically incendiary one, nor was it secret, having been widely reported on the Internet.
After a bit more information about the Chinese internet censorship situation, he concludes:
...U.S. companies such as Microsoft, Yahoo and Google have a responsibility to their shareholders to stand up for the profitable operation of their businesses in China. Trying to anticipate every concern of the propaganda ministry is no way to win long-term customers. Fighting for the right to conduct business fairly and reasonably is the mark of every Western company that has succeeded in China.
U.S. companies also have an obligation, as leaders in a global medium defined by open information, to protect basic rights of individuals to express themselves without censorship — within reason.
"Within reason" are the key words here. It is within reason for China to demand that U.S. companies comply with Chinese laws and regulations. What is not within reason is a Chinese demand for compliance with unwritten whims.
This is indeed key. Microsoft told the New York Times last week that it shut down Michael Anti's blog "after Chinese authorities made a request through a Shanghai-based affiliate of the company." They claim they had to do so in compliance with Chinese law. But Microsoft has not indicated which law Anti was alleged to have broken. It is unclear whether they challenged the makers of this indirect request to provide evidence that he had in fact broken a law, or that Microsoft's hosting of Anti's blog content was illegal in any way. Surely not all of his content was illegal, so couldn't they have negotiated to just delete the illegal parts? If no such questions were asked and no clear legal answers given, then Microsoft was responding to a political request, not a legal request.
Chinese officials frequently describe the strengthening of "rule of law" (as opposed to random bureaucratic fiat) to be a national goal. One example is this People's Daily article here. In a lot of ways it is of course a bunch of bull, but as people who live in China will tell you, legal processes are taken a lot more seriously in China than they were a decade ago - especially in business. But if multinational companies don't take the Chinese legal system seriously, particularly in relation to users' legal and constitutional rights, who ever will?
There is a tremendous opportunity here to win competitive advantage and gain user trust by showing that users' legal rights are taken seriously.
And as I've said before, this issue is not just about China, Chinese politics, or Chinese users. It concerns all users of a global product. If Microsoft and other U.S. internet companies really want the long-term trust of users globally, they must demonstrate that they stand on the user's side in the face of power plays by agencies of any government which may not be acting lawfully.
A China-based U.S. business person I know well expressed her views on the Western companies' timidity in a recent e-mail:
... a line has been crossed with removing information from a U.S.-based server based on internal and likely verbally communicated Chinese political policy. We all laughed at [former Chinese president] Jiang Zemin's rather clumsy efforts to get Chinese political messages into the international press, by pressuring media companies angling for licenses in China to run glowing packages on China's booming economy and imaginative entrepreneurs (viz Fortune special issue on China). But now the policy seems really to be working, and China is able to extend its political views across the world by leveraging government control of the market. So Michael Anti comes down, and we already know that Propaganda operatives are out there blogging on evil Chen Shuibian [Taiwan's President who Beijing hates] etc., with those blogs continuing undisturbed. Is this better or worse than the US paying Iraqis to spin the occupation? Why even ask? It's all scurrilous, but the Chinese methods appear to be more efffective.
(explanation in brackets and links added)