I am a big fan of Skype in general, and I use it heavily. But the way Skype chooses to treat its Chinese users will ultimately impact the extent to which I as a user can trust Skype anywhere, in general.
I'm disturbed that Skype in China has adopted the internet censorship practices of its local Chinese partner, TOM, without examining whether there is a more ethical and honest way to handle Chinese government demands to censor chat clients than the one currently employed by local Chinese companies.
On his blog, Skype's Jaanus Kase tries to explain his company's decision a bit further:
Skype has a joint venture with TOM Online. As part of that venture, we provide a co-branded version of Skype called TOM-Skype, which is the version of Skype that is available in mainland China.
As part of the joint venture, TOM provides guidance to Skype about how to co-operate with local laws and regulations in China. In every country we operate in, we always work with local authorities to follow local laws and best practice.
TOM operates a text filter in TOM-Skype. The filter operates solely on text chats. The filter has a list of words which will not be displayed in Skype chats.
"Best practice?" Come on. I posted a comment on his blog as follows:
Jaanus has not yet responded. If you have questions to add that you'd like him to answer, please head on over and ask them.
Hello! I have some more questions:
- Do you notify the users of the fact that their chats will be filtered? Or that they have been filtered and why?
- Can you or will you publicize the list of filtered words?
- Can you please specify the exact laws and regulations which are being followed in regard to each word or phrase? In other words in each case what Chinese law or regulation is being broken by each word's use?
- Is there an appeals process for users to challenge the legal necessity of filtering certain words that they feel should not be filtered?
I believe that multinational internet communications businesses are not being transparent or honest enough with Chinese users. This is not just about freedom of speech and human rights, it's about the way you treat your user and whether you are squandering your user trust in China. User trust is ultimately your greatest competitive advantage in China; any technical competitive edge will not be maintainable over the long run against your Chinese competitors. Filtering in a non-transparent, unaccountable manner squanders your user trust. I believe it is possible to engage and do business in the Chinese market without lying to your users or treating them like children. It will take some effort and spine to do the right thing but your users will appreciate it and reward you with trust and loyalty. It is not just morally the right thing to do, it's the right thing to do for your business.