After outrage from many of its own employees over its abrupt censoring of a Chinese blogger, Microsoft has formulated a new policy to deal with requests from a government that alleges posted material violates its laws.
The measures were detailed by Microsoft's top lawyer, Brad Smith, at the Government Leaders Forum in Lisbon on Tuesday.
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. The company also called for stronger measures to deal with the privacy and free expression issues arising from the rapid adoption of communication technologies.
The unexpected announcement was immediately praised by Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, who said she was "extremely pleased" and the move was of "crucial importance."
Microsoft's new policy is a clear response to the wide criticism the company received over the last month since it shut down the site of Chinese blogger Zhao Jing, also known as Michael Anti. After Microsoft removed the site from its MSN Spaces at the end of last year, the company was sharply criticized for aiding in the enforcement of laws widely considered to violate rights to free expression.
Zhao's blog was removed from servers located in the U.S., which blocked the viewing of his page from anywhere. Under Microsoft's new policy, it appears that Zhao's blog still would have been removed.
In a round-table interview with journalists Tuesday, Smith defended Microsoft's actions, saying the company examined both the request from the Chinese government and the law in relation to Zhao's blog.
Microsoft operates MSN Spaces under a license, and the service is regulated by the Shanghai News, an instrument of the Chinese government, Smith said. The office has the legal authority under Chinese law to issue an official notification to the company to remove access to material in some circumstances, he said.
In Zhao's case, the Shanghai News followed the necessary procedural prerequisites and issued a notice that pointed to the law that his blog violated. "We concluded that we indeed had a legal obligation to comply with it," Smith said.
But the case has caused a point of reflection for Microsoft, prompting the company to look at the larger issue of the effects of its technology. In China, MSN spaces has about 3 million users, and those sites are read by up to 15 million within China, Smith said.
"Obviously what we are trying to do with the kinds of principles we articulated today is ... obey the law in the countries in which we do business but also pay appropriate respect to the needs of our users, both those who put information up on a blog and those who want to read that information around the world," Smith said.
Microsoft believes it is better to provide the technology to countries such as China than to withhold it, Smith said. "Internet isolationism is not an option," he said.
U.S. high-tech companies have been grappling with the need to do business in one of the world's fastest growing economies and deal with the ethical issues surrounding aspects of Chinese law. Companies have gone on the defense, saying that they must comply with the host country's laws if they want to do business.
One view is that companies will have to do this kind of occasional censoring, but it is outweighed by the long-term subversive effect of blogs, said Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School.
"Another view is Western companies chartered in societies that believe in this kind of censorship shouldn't be carrying water for societies that do," Zittrain said.
Google Inc. was planning to launch a new search service in China this week that censors some results considered inappropriate by the government. The service, however, will tell users some results have been blocked because of their politically sensitive nature.
Observers have called for stronger ethical guidelines to help navigate the murky issues of training people who will use their new IT skills to restrict speech or access to information. Eventually, it may be in the vendors' best interests if they want to maintain allegiance from their users, said Rebecca MacKinnon, a fellow at the Berkman Center.
"Nobody is one asking Western companies to go and lobby the Chinese government to change its behavior," MacKinnon said. "That's not possible. But what we are asking companies to do is change the way in which they respond to Chinese government behavior and the way in which they interact with it, and that they can control."