Will Microsoft's microstep loosen the muzzle?

"I may disagree with what you have to say," proclaimed Voltaire more than two centuries ago, "but shall defend to the death your right to say it."

The last time we checked, this maxim wasn't in the Chinese government's manual of quotable quotes.

Like other intolerant regimes, the Chinese administration has gained notoriety for attempting to muzzle not just dissent, but channels through which dissent or discontent are frequently articulated. And in this age of the wild, wild Web - the blog has proved to be just such a channel.

Blog censorship in China has become much more stringent in recent years. The issue of reared its ugly head last month when Microsoft Corp. -- acting on a directive from the Chinese authorities -- closed the blog of Zhao Jing, an employee with the Beijing bureau of The New York Times. Jing, who wrote his blog under the pen name Anti, touched on politically sensitive topics, including China's relationship with Taiwan.

Microsoft claimed it was legally bound to shut down the blog. "When we operate in markets around the world, we have to ensure that our service complies with global laws, as well as local laws and norms," a Microsoft spokesperson said.

However, the closure sparked vehement protests worldwide and was roundly condemned by human rights activists (and even, informally, by some Microsoft employees) as corporate capitulation to the egregious demands of an intolerant regime.

Responding to the avalanche of criticism, Microsoft, last week, announced that it was tightening its blog policy.

There are three main aspects to the new policy detailed by Microsoft lawyer Brad Smith at the recent Government Leaders Forum in Lisbon.

*The legal prerequisite - Microsoft would remove blogs only when served with a "legally binding notice from the government indicating that the material violates local laws, or if the content violates MSN's terms of use";

* Transparent user notification - Microsoft would notify the blog owner that the site was removed because of a notice from government; and,

* Targeted blocking -- When legal compulsions forced removal, access to the blog would only be blocked from within the country where it was deemed unlawful. Users outside that country would still be able to view the blog. (Microsoft is developing a technology that would enable such targeted blocking).

Microsoft's announcement about its revamped blogging policy elicited a mixed response.

It was hailed as "deeply significant" by Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Robinson said she was "extremely pleased" with the new policy.

The announcement also received qualified praise from Amnesty International representative Amy O'Meara, who dubbed it a "very small step" towards progress. "We're pleased to see that a company like Microsoft is responsive to public concerns," she said.

However, Julien Pain head of the Internet Desk at Reporters without Borders - a global media rights organization - was not impressed and dubbed it an "illusory victory."

Who is right?

In this debate, it does seem the naysayers have it.

From all indications, Microsoft's move is "significant" more for its symbolic value rather than for any real impact on fostering free speech. Ostensibly, the new policy seems to be telling repressive governments where they get off. In reality, the message it gives them is: serve us with a legal notice and we'll toe the line.

But as despotic regimes and unjust legislation often go hand in hand, the "we're obeying the law" argument cannot and should not get a company off the hook.

As public interest advocate Phillipa Lawson executive director and general counsel of Ottawa-based Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) points out, "there are certain absolute human rights -- like those set out in the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights -- that all nations should be adopting."

Ergo: if a country's laws violate these human rights then the "obedience to the law" explanation is certainly not acceptable.

Lawson cites a not so hypothetical case (it happened with Yahoo): "Let's say a repressive government comes to Microsoft with a legal document saying: 'we want the name of the person who made these comments that we know you have been publishing on your blogs outside of China -- and we want to arrest that person.' Under their current policy, Microsoft would have to turn that information over because it would be in response to a legal demand."

Microsoft offers the "balancing act" argument. Its objectives, it says, are to obey the law in countries where it does business and also to "pay respect to the needs of users."

Fair enough. But what if these two goals are incompatible -- as they quite often are? Aye, there's the rub. Rights activists, such as Lawson, articulate what the guiding principle should be in such situations: "It's important that pressures of business and of maximizing profits for shareholders do not take precedence over fundamental human rights."

At a practical level though -- when confronted with such an ethical dilemma -- what options are open to a private corporation?

One is to refuse to do business in that country. That's the preferred solution offered by Pain from Reporters without Borders. "If they (hi-tech companies) really want to do more good than bad," he says, "they should pull out from China. These companies just want to get a piece of the cake."

That's not surprising when you consider the size of that cake. With an estimated 80 million Internet users -- less than eight per cent of China's total population -- China's as yet undeveloped market represents unfathomable potential for global IT behemoths.

Another response -- at the other end of the spectrum -- is to continue with "business as usual" and offer token gestures of protest from time to time.

That, emphatically, isn't the right answer.

There may be a third option. Perhaps, as a consortium, global IT and media companies should outline what local laws and regulations would be unacceptable to them -- because they militate against basic human rights -- and then adopt a carefully calibrated but strong and principled response to each situation as it arises.

As Lawson says, "If companies decide to do business [in repressive countries] -- and I'm not sure that's the right thing -- but if they do, it should be on certain very clear terms; and there should be certain principles they just do not compromise."

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Joaquim P. Menezes

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