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CHINA: Microsoft Shuts Down Blog Potentially Offensive to China

by Kathy Chen and Geoffrey FowlerWall Street Journal
January 5th, 2006

Microsoft Corp. has shut down a popular Chinese-language blog that has run edgy content potentially offensive to Chinese authorities, amid China's continuing efforts to control information on the Internet.

Microsoft's MSN Spaces, which lets users create their own websites, known as weblogs or blogs, closed down the blog, written by Chinese journalist Zhao Jing under the penname Michael Anti, on Dec. 30.

The site had criticized the government's firing of top editors at a progressive Beijing newspaper late December. Efforts to access the site from inside and outside China trigger a notice that "the space is temporarily unavailable.''

Brooke Richardson, MSN's lead product manager, confirmed in a statement Thursday that Mr. Zhao's site "has been blocked at this time.'' "MSN is committed to ensuring that products and services comply with global and local laws, norms, and industry practices in China," the statement said.

"Most countries have laws and practices that require companies providing online services to make the internet safe for local users. Occasionally, as in China, local laws and practices require consideration of unique elements.''

Chinese regulators' efforts to retain control over information flow across the country's growing number of Internet news sites and blogs are putting foreign technology companies in a dilemma, as they seek to balance business interests and ethical issues like free speech.

In some cases, the Chinese government has issued rules aimed at tightening its control over the Internet: It is now shutting down blogs and other sites that have failed to register with local authorities. Last fall, Beijing issued rules prohibiting bloggers and other online publishers from posting content that "goes against state security and public interest.''

But industry executives say self-censorship is also widespread among both Chinese and foreign players, who don't want to risk a revocation of their operation licenses. "Everyone is very careful. This is what you do in China,'' says Anne Stevenson-Yang, a partner of Blue Bamboo Ventures, a China-based Internet company.

Some big technology companies have drawn fire for accommodating the Chinese government. Cisco Systems Inc. has been criticized by free-speech advocates for selling equipment to China that helps censors block Web sites. Cisco has said it doesn't participate in government censorship but acknowledges that its equipment can be used to filter access to Web sites.

Human-rights activists have condemned Yahoo Inc. for helping Chinese police identify a Chinese journalist who allegedly used his Yahoo email account to relay to an overseas Web site the contents of a secret government order. The journalist is now serving a 10-year prison sentence. (See related article.1)

Yahoo has said that it seeks to "balance legal requirements against our strong belief that our active involvement in China contributes to the continued modernization of the country.''

Before being shut down, Mr. Zhao's blog, which featured his sarcastic and bold commentary on Chinese political and media developments, attracted more than 7,000 visitors each day on average. In December, he criticized the government-mandated shakeup at the Beijing News, according to his posting, in which he urged Beijing News readers to cancel their subscriptions.

This isn't the first time Mr. Zhao, 30 years old, has had a run-in over his blogs. A former reporter for the 21st Century Global News, a liberal newspaper that was closed by authorities in 2003, Mr. Zhao first set up a blog on Blog-City, owned by a Scottish company. That site was blocked after he commented on an internal conflict at another Chinese newspaper.

Mr. Zhao declined to comment on the shutdown of his MSN Space, saying he was seeking clarification from Microsoft.

Blogging has quickly become a mainstream activity in urban China. Duncan Clark, managing director of technology consultancy BDA China Ltd. in Beijing, estimates that the number of Chinese blog sites is about three million and is doubling every five months or so, in line with the global rate.

Unlike the U.S.'s feisty online political discussions, most of China's bloggers "mainly write about their own lives,'' says Fang Xingdong, founder of Chinese blog portal Bokee.com.

Popular sites include one started by two college students calling themselves the "Back Dorm Boys'' and featuring videos of them lip-synching to songs by the Backstreet Boys. Now they perform their act on Chinese television, too.

But some Chinese bloggers have become political, especially the increasing numbers of professional journalists who post their field notes on their blogs, even if the information gets edited out of newspapers. Largely because of blogs, news of everything from riots to excess formaldehyde in Chinese beer now spreads despite government attempts to limit discussion.

To stop this sort of activity, China's censors, estimated by free-speech activists to number as high as 30,000, employ a sophisticated net of filters. Typing forbidden phrases such as "human rights'' and "democracy'' into some automated blogging systems, including MSN Spaces, will net only an error message.

Chinese web portals have their own in-house censors who work with government minders to take down posts that are deemed inappropriate, and sometimes block entire websites.

Many Chinese bloggers say it is difficult for them to find a reliable blog-server host because a bad post by another blogger using the same system can cause the government to block access to the entire server.

Rebecca MacKinnon, a research fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, says her attempts to set up blogs via MSN Spaces with content that might irritate Beijing – such as references to "Tibetan independence'' – have been blocked or removed.

"In the short term, [acquiescing to China] gets you into a market you perhaps couldn't be in otherwise,'' she says. But "in the long term, is this good for your corporate global image and your image in China, that you go along with censorship?''

Microsoft currently has two joint ventures and more than 900 employees in China. MSN, its online-services division, has enjoyed strong growth in China, with the number of its Messenger users jumping 25% to nine million in four months after the Chinese version was launched in May 2005, and the number of visits to MSN Chinese-language websites up 133% over the same four-month period, according to Microsoft.

--Cui Rong and Robert A. Guth of The Wall Street Journal contributed to this article.



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