Your passion, their potential to censor you

Anyone remember that term paper I wrote last month on how American tech companies (Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Cisco) were helping the Chinese government filter the Internet? No? That’s okay, I remember it well enough to see these moves on MSN Spaces (via Rebecca MacKinnon) as something new, but not surprising.

The obligatory Scoble posts on the topic basically say I don’t like it, but we have employees there we can’t put at risk, so we play by the local rules.

This is the same attitude as usual from Microsoft and others, but if the allegedly offensive blogs are being taken down for American audiences as well, it means something more than playing by local rules.

When Microsoft makes changes in how its software works in China, that’s obedience to local laws, regardless of American laws. No technicial problem there, other than a general sort of spinelessness that often comes with being a multinational corporation.

When Microsoft removes content for users in the U.S., that’s prior restraint. Microsoft is absolutely not liable in the U.S. for any defamatory content posted on MSN Spaces (Zeran v. AOL, 1997). So what’s the logic? Why make it impossible for users in the U.S. to read content that has been censored abroad? Are we importing oppression these days? (Don’t answer that.)

Cases like these are crucial right now — the globally connected Internet cannot be controlled by the laws of the nations most oppressive to free expression.

It is long past time for corporations like Microsoft to put up or shut up: I don’t want to hear this “Our passion, your potential” crap (and it’s a horrible line anyway) again until Microsoft’s products actually allow people to communicate without censorship.

There’s lots more about this on Rebecca MacKinnon’s blog, with ongoing conversations in the comments to her last few posts.

[tags]Microsoft, China, Chinese Democracy, MSN Spaces, NoMSN[/tags]

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