Microsoft has removed the website of a Chinese blogger critical of the government, raising sharp questions about the company's complicity with a repressive regime.
The decision to delete Zhao Jing's site from its Microsoft hosting package was defended by the software giant's CEO Steve Ballmer. "We have an obligation in all the countries where we do business to abide by the laws and the government decrees in those countries," he said.
But the decision has raised critical voices within the company itself, with several employees worrying about a US company aiding restrictions on free speech.
Zhao Jing's blog, formerly located on the MSN Spaces service (http://spaces.msn.com/members/mranti/), "has been blocked to help ensure the service complies with local laws in China," according to a statement from Microsoft.
It's not clear what triggered Microsoft's move, although Zhao, who also goes by the name Michael Anti, has a reputation for writing posts questioning government policy and commentaries on current news events. The sacking of his blog around the end of last year was noted in a blog posting by Rebecca MacKinnon, a research fellow at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society and former CNN journalist.
Some Western companies with IT operations in China have been criticised for tailoring their own policies in line with Chinese government laws considered to violate widely-accepted human rights standards. The rise of the Internet has represented a leaky crack for festering discontent, and the Chinese government is believed to have advanced Internet monitoring mechanisms in place detecting such keywords as "democracy" in online content.
In an interview at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Ballmer reiterated that the company is bound to respect local law. "We do here, we do in Europe; we also do in places like China. And anybody can choose not to do business in any country. We all have that option."
Yahoo was criticized last year after providing evidence that led to a ten-year prison sentence for a Chinese journalist. Shi Tao was convicted of divulging state secrets to foreigners after passing along an e-mail that contained a warning from the Chinese government urging its officials to watch out for dissident activity ahead of the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Last month, Microsoft said it moderates "limited but specific parts of Spaces" to ensure the content in publicly visible forums abide by the laws and norms of China.
MSN uses a filter for blog URLs, the MSN Space title, subtitle and blog headers but does not filter blog entries or comments, the company said. Microsoft said it has a joint venture with a Chinese company, the Shanghai MSN Network Communications Technology Company, to manage MSN Spaces.
Microsoft employees have weighed in debate, with some writing critical salvos on their blogs while others defended the company's policies in China. Robert Scoble, a Microsoft technical evangelist, wrote on his personal blog that the Zhao situation is "depressing".
"It's one thing to pull a list of words out of blogs using an algorithm," Scoble wrote. "It's another thing to become an agent of a government and censor an entire blogger's work. Yes, I know the consequences. Yes, there are thousands of jobs at stake. Billions of dollars. But the behaviour of my company in this instance is not right."
Michael Connolly, a product unit manager for MSN Spaces, wrote on his personal blog that China is unique in that it regulates certain kinds of speech. If a blog is reported to MSN as offensive, Microsoft checks to see if it adheres to the code of conduct, a series of standards Microsoft has as a requirement for posting on the service, Connolly wrote.
"In many cases, the answer is 'Yes, this site is fine'," Connolly wrote. "But, in some cases, the answer is 'no.' And when an offense is found that actually breaks a national law, we have no choice but to take down the site."