bow down to your global censorship overlords.
January 3, 2006 10:59 AM   Subscribe

Microsoft takes down chinese language blog critical of Beijing This was on the global (.com) site not a .cn site. Meaning this policy affects all Chinese speakers all over the world, including in the US. Interestingly, the pressure seems to have been commercial, as a commercial Chinese blogging company took Microsoft to task for allowing the commentary. Is globalization exporting censorship?
posted by delmoi (64 comments total)
Is globalization exporting censorship?

posted by parallax7d at 11:05 AM on January 3, 2006

Is globalization exporting censorship?

posted by keswick at 11:05 AM on January 3, 2006

The idea that capitalism in and of itself will put an end to censorship is naive beyond belief. Do people think a company will hesitate to censor speech that might affect its bottom line, even indirectly?..
posted by clevershark at 11:08 AM on January 3, 2006

This reminds me of South Africa and the large impact the international boycott lead to ending apartheid. To my knowledge there are only two main schools of thought on such issues. The first is that businesses should try to make change from within, the second is that businesses should not operate in governments that violate human rights.

I am from the school that businesses should not, or rather cannot, create change from within. It's just too hard and there are too many complications. Really I think businesses should either operate within the law of the country or not operate at all. It's much harder to boycott China than South Africa, but a proper international exodus of foreign business would cripple the Chinese economy (and possibly ours).

Really I hate censorship as much as the next person but I don't believe a business is the place to express political opposition. I'm more angery NGOs and our own government aren't taking a more hard line response to this.
posted by geoff. at 11:10 AM on January 3, 2006

Who cares?
posted by kjh at 11:34 AM on January 3, 2006

I do.
posted by Simon! at 11:39 AM on January 3, 2006

Corporate entity with a fiduciary duty to its stock holders makes inconsequential decision in order to prevent a loss of a major potentional market. Weblog at 11.
posted by dios at 12:05 PM on January 3, 2006

inconsequential decision

I guess corporations helping governments censor free speech is an acceptable display of "authoritarian libertarianism" — whatever that ridiculous neologism means.
posted by Rothko at 12:08 PM on January 3, 2006

What about other major blogging sites, such as typepad or blogspot, do they filter as well?
posted by empath at 12:11 PM on January 3, 2006

Really I hate censorship as much as the next person but I don't believe a business is the place to express political opposition.

Interesting thought. I certainly understand the idea that businesses should remain aloof and neutral, doing only what is necessary to maximize revenue while abiding by all relevant laws.

However, let's consider the options available for public commentary in this day and age, assuming that individuals commenting publicly is a valid expression of political opposition:

#1: You can buy television or radio time, or ads in a major newspaper or magazine. This is expensive, but allows you to reach a significant audience. However, all of these outlets are vulnerable to the local government stepping in to censor, so that's out.

#2: You can put up a web page. This is inexpensive, and potentially reaches a large audience, although it's hard to establish the initial audience and won't have nearly the power of the big media outlets. However, ISPs and hosting companies (MSN included) are vulnerable to the local government stepping in to censor, so that's out.

#3: You can make a leaflet, then make tons of photocopies and distribute them. This is somewhat pricey and time-consuming, and while the audience is potentially unlimited, you'll need to reach each member more or less individually, either in person or via a mailing. However, the mails and photocopy manufacturers (remember: color printers cannot by law photocopy money, so forbidding copies of certain words isn't a stretch) are vulnerable to the local government stepping in to censor, so that's out.

#4: You can buy a pen and paper and write out/distribute your leaflets one by one, or shout out your ideas from a soapbox.

So in this day and age, if businesses are always willing to succumb to governmental censorship, public discourse becomes potentially impossible except on an individual, nearly one-on-one basis. Hardly a recipe for a healthy society of ideas and improvements, eh?

Also: MSN went beyond censoring as required by the local government, and instead appears to have established a technical nanny that removes all blogs with certain keywords, in all regions. Imagine if the ISPs did that as well -- the person who brought this to our attention (blog, not FPP) couldn't have even stated the trigger words without being shut down. So we wouldn't even be having this conversation.

THen again, I'd probably be getting more work done. ;)
posted by davejay at 12:18 PM on January 3, 2006

Really I hate censorship as much as the next person but I don't believe a business is the place to express political opposition

Only opinion ? No motivation ? Duh :o

I also don't believe the sun is in the sky, but hey people tell me I'm crazy.
posted by elpapacito at 12:21 PM on January 3, 2006

makes inconsequential decision

Normally I don't bother, but usually these derails are nested deep within layers upon layers. Seldom do they boil down to such a simple and core idea: "is this consequential, or inconsequential?"

#1: If you have no interest in the reasons for this censorship, or it happens "somewhere else", then your feelings will certainly fall on the 'inconsequential' side of things.

#2: If you have an interest in maintaining the status quo for whatever reason, you'll certainly publicly stick to the 'inconsequential' view, though you will privately understand that it is very consequential indeed.

#3: And if you are attempting to facilitate change in your country and this decision silences what little public voice you have, then this is quite 'consequential' to you.

Also if you empathize with those silenced.

Here's to those that understand how consequential this sort of thing is, and here's hoping those that think this is inconsequential put their money where their mouths are and go off to some other thread. :)

Hey, dios, would you put yourself in camp #1 or #2?
posted by davejay at 12:23 PM on January 3, 2006

Corporate entity with a fiduciary duty to its stock holders makes inconsequential decision in order to prevent a loss of a major potentional market. Weblog at 11.

Isn't the stock market grand? Rich people will get richer off of it and when anyone else suffers a loss of civil rights or basic human rights because of profits, apologists can lay the blame on a coporation's duty to stock holders. It's like how soliders aren't to blame for killing innocents, because they're following orders, but generals aren't guilty because they don't pull the trigger.
posted by eustacescrubb at 12:28 PM on January 3, 2006

Hey, in my first post to this thread, I left out a potential outlet for public discourse: getting into politics.

However, with the money involved these days and the amount of mudslinging and whatnot, I can't imagine many see this as a viable approach. Russ Feingold aside, of course (props!)

Then again, in China, can an individual even make that decision to enter politics? What options does a citizen have? I'm curious. Think I'll go do some reading on the subject.
posted by davejay at 12:28 PM on January 3, 2006

davejay, I think a better and more effective approach is for countries to not do business inside a country such as China. I am more than aware of how intertwined we are with the Chinese economy, but I don't think pressure from within can be effective. In this paticular case, I believe Chinese officials at least pressured Microsoft into taking down the blog. I'm sure there's a lot of quid pro quo (i.e. Microsoft takes down blogs, piracy raids go up). I feel as if I'm not expressing myself as eloquently as I could. The Chinese political and economic machine is complex, and it's hard to be ethical by Western standards. Would we be complaining if a Microsoft employee in China got pregnant a second time and Microsoft was forced to turn her in for a forced abortion (as required by law)? Obviously it's rhetorical but we shoud look beyond this one instance and be asking if we should even be doing business within China.

This is extremely political, but I hate to think we've literally sold-out to communism. No one wants to take China to task. If we stop doing business in China we will lose a lot of money, but their economy will collapse back to where it was. If Microsoft was against censorship and civil rights violations they would not do business in China. They're obviously more motivated by money in such situations.

Again, South Africa proved business pull-outs can be effective in inducing change. When GM and others were in South Africa they kept claiming they were trying to induce change from within, this was largely ineffective. Similarly, any attempts by Microsoft and others within China be just as futile.

dios is correct insofar as a company has a financial responsibility to its shareholders first. Those shareholders should be the ones telling Microsoft how to act, not some employee pulling down blogs.
posted by geoff. at 1:00 PM on January 3, 2006

I'm really not sure what the .com vs .cn has to do with anything.

But really if the option is allowing the blog and having all of the domain blocked by the Chinese gov't what the heck is MSN supposed to do?
posted by bitdamaged at 1:38 PM on January 3, 2006

I hate to think we've literally sold-out to communism fascism.
posted by homunculus at 1:39 PM on January 3, 2006

Hm. Some people inside microsoft not too happy with this either
posted by menace303 at 1:41 PM on January 3, 2006

The main thing to consider here is that this is a global blog, and that this deprives people everywhere the opportunity to hear these voices. Microsoft is not being nuetral here. They are taking the side of the Chinese government and becoming their enforcer, ipso facto.

If this kind of thing continues, what is to stop the censorship from becoming world wide. So if I put a post in my blog in the US about the Chinese government, they object and MicroSoft takes it down. Just good business?

posted by birdhaus at 1:50 PM on January 3, 2006

People who say free trade (embodied in "capitalist" corporations like Microsoft) will one day soon bring freedom to China are just like those near-sighted dummies in England who thought giving the Sudetenland to Germany would appease the Nazis. Brilliant.
posted by Rothko at 1:59 PM on January 3, 2006

But really if the option is allowing the blog and having all of the domain blocked by the Chinese gov't what the heck is MSN supposed to do?

You stand by the principles you're supposed to have if you're running a publishing service and let them block the damn thing instead of playing along. That's not obvious?

"MSN Spaces: Say anything you like so long as it isn't controversial beyond a certain degree."
posted by JHarris at 2:30 PM on January 3, 2006

Where do you want to go today? er, not here. Not here. Definitely not there! Ah, fuck it, we'll tell you where to go today.
posted by clevershark at 2:35 PM on January 3, 2006

You stand by the principles you're supposed to have if you're running a publishing service and let them block the damn thing instead of playing along. That's not obvious?

How does that stand with respect to Microsoft's aforementioned "fiduciary duty to its stock holders?" (Genuinely curious here.)
posted by event at 2:41 PM on January 3, 2006

The frightening face of the free market looms over this affair in more ways than one. Rebecca links to another blog that points out a rival domestic blog hosting company named Bokee has a hand in all this by alerting publicly condemning MSN and the critical blog it hosted:
the motivation of Bokee was commercial in nature (that is, they want to use the government's security apparatus to damage MSN Spaces as a competitor).
posted by allan at 2:54 PM on January 3, 2006

What b1tr0t said. Once again, he shows why he deserves the label of the smartest poster here.
posted by dios at 3:01 PM on January 3, 2006

The smartest poster here gave a good explanation why monopolistic corporations and democracy don't go well together.
posted by Space Coyote at 3:09 PM on January 3, 2006

So... please, let me know when we siteban quonsar to satisfy the demands of a fascist state.
posted by mek at 3:20 PM on January 3, 2006

If all spaces wherein civil rights may be exercised are privately owned, and subject to coercion by any government/ market/ organization that could take umbrage, those civil rights become strictly theoretical in nature. Now, you can take comfort in the legal technicality of the case, but that only matters so much in the long run: for when people are conditioned to censorship by private entities, private entities that they interact with far more closely and routinely than any government, what does it matter to them if public entities censor them also? When that runs its course, there won't be legalisms to consider. It's not just about the law.
posted by furiousthought at 3:28 PM on January 3, 2006

How does that stand with respect to Microsoft's aforementioned "fiduciary duty to its stock holders?" (Genuinely curious here.)

Because Microsoft is running a blogging service. The entire point behind a blog is to be able to say whatever you want. Censoring people's blogs directly harms that service, which in turn drives people away, which, in the long term, harms that "fiduciary duty," even if it is helped in the short term by bowing to the pressures of a group who are neither their bloggers or their readers. (Aside: Am I the only one who things those two words used together sounds almost scatological?)

Since when is being able to post anything you want to Microsoft's free blogging service a civil right?

Who said it was a civil right? However, Microsoft markets it as a tool to allow for free expression. Quite obviously, it is not. That's a problem, right there.

Microsoft's censorship of a blog that they think might offend a large customer (the Chinese government) is really no different than Matt's censorship of quonsar.

That's not the same thing at all. Metafilter is a collaboration, a bunch of small pieces that come together as a whole, and editing it is ultimately an aesthetic decision. On the other hand, MSN Spaces attracts bloggers by promising them false freedom. MSN Spaces makes money by advertising to the readers of their blogs. Smarter bloggers will see their freedom doesn't exist. The blogs of smarter bloggers get more readers, so that *does* harm their business.

Further, their reputation takes a hit, attracting fewer bloggers smart or otherwise, and that also harms their business, especially when alternatives are plentiful and not obviously worse.
posted by JHarris at 3:37 PM on January 3, 2006

Who said it was a civil right?

Um, me?
posted by eustacescrubb at 3:41 PM on January 3, 2006

betaray: I'd construct that it is impossible not to post objectonable content if one doesn't know what is objectionable -before- actualling posting it.

Indeed M$ offers a list of content that they consider ground for cancellation , but as obscene, vulgar are very elastic concepts that "Code" gives M$ power to delete anything.
posted by elpapacito at 5:09 PM on January 3, 2006

I can't quite believe the people supporting Microsoft's right to censor political discourse, just because it's on their own network.

It's almost like you believe that property is the be all and end all of the matter.

Is it quite so difficult to get your head around the concept that Microsoft is aiding the oppressive, authoritarian Chinese government in its bid to quash dissent and eradicate any opinion that differs from its own?

I was just talking to a Chinese student, over here in the UK, who was trying to explain to me, earnestly and sincerely, that "all the Chinese government wants is peace" - that they're not agressive or oppressive - and I was simply misunderstanding them all this time.

That's what China wants its citizens to hear. And it wants everyone else to say nothing that diverges from that, lest those citizens might hear, so it can keep them ignorant and under its control.

Microsoft wants to, and is, aiding China in keeping China's citizens ignorant and under their government's control.

Anyone who supports Microsoft's decision, or as we have here, tripping over themselves to stand up for Microsoft's Network Property Rights™, is at the very least indifferent to those people's fates, and that makes you as much a fucker (oh, gosh ... there ... I said it) as Microsoft is, if what this story reports is true.
posted by Blue Stone at 5:38 PM on January 3, 2006

Microsoft markets it as a tool to allow for free expression

Could you give examples of this marketing? I'm clicking around on but nothing jumps out at me.
posted by event at 5:38 PM on January 3, 2006

Well, technically, you don't know it's objectionable until it's deleted. It's not like Microsoft has a monopoly on blogging services. If you want your blogging service to be banned in China because they won't bow to government pressure, then don't use MSN Spaces.

I agree with all of you who think that businesses shouldn't deal with immoral governments, but what are you doing beside hoping they will stop?
posted by betaray at 5:49 PM on January 3, 2006

When that Korean guy was beheaded a year or two ago, and video was circulating the net, South Korea (yes, by order of the government) ordered ISPs to block access to all Typepad and Blogger sites, on the pretext that it was webloggers circulating the video, which NO ONE WAS ALLOWED TO SEE.

A similar thing happened to Geocities, in the pre-blogging era.

Notably retro behaviour from what is widely hailed to be the most wired country in the world.

Lazy and uninterested network admins in many places (like the very large company I work for), including some regional ISPs, haven't bothered to remove those bans from their servers yet, despite the fact that the prohibition was effectively lifted a few weeks later. Nobody asked about it, so nothing was changed. Continuing censorship through incompetence, if you will. Anyone savvy can proxy their way around the damage, of course, but most people aren't.

Just a data point.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:45 PM on January 3, 2006

(My allcaps outburst was meant to evoke an old clueless Korean boss waggling his finger and shouting, by the way. I'm way past getting exercised about stuff like this in Korea anymore...)
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:46 PM on January 3, 2006

So, uh, this thuggery is ok as long as it's in the name of the bottom line? Is that what "the smartest poster here" and the rest of you microsoft defenders are saying?

from the posted links:
It’s one thing to pull a list of words out of blogs using an algorithm. It’s another thing to become an agent of a government and censor an entire blogger’s work.
Now, It is VERY important to note that the inaccessible blog was moved or removed at the server level and that the blog remains inaccessible from the United States as well as from China. This means that the action was taken NOT by Chinese authorities responsible for filtering and censoring the internet for Chinese viewers, but by MSN staff at the level of the MSN servers.

posted by Treeline at 8:00 PM on January 3, 2006

I don't know if that is the lamest apology for corporate thuggery ever written, but it comes damn close.
posted by Rothko at 9:14 PM on January 3, 2006

What a fucking depressing thread, I can't believe people are actually defending Microsoft. The bottom line is that what Microsoft did was morally wrong. It doesn't matter if what they did was legal or not or whether it was good for the shareholder, it is morally wrong to deny someone their right to free speech. That should be the end of this argument.

"Although this action makes it slightly harder for Chinese authors to publish things that the Chinese government doesn't want them to, there are still many free, cheap, and expensive options available to them."

Do you have any fucking clue what you are talking about? The government controls every media source and has been regularly jailing journalists who even slightly question the party line. Even on the internet all major blog services and bulletin boards are closely controlled by government censors. They have thousands of police officers whose only job is to scour the internet for offending speech. The only real option to avoid censorship and communicate your opinion to people in the PRC is either to have a non-Chinese language site, which the vast majority of Chinese people cannot read, or to run an email newsletter that will have a very limited readership.

Cheap web publishing (AKA blogging) would be a good alternative. But the CCP noticed that as well and quickly moved to control the Chinese blog world. As per empath's question, Blogspot is permanently blocked and typepad is periodically blocked in China, forcing most Chinese users to use approved blogging hosts. This would be like the US government only allowing a certain numbed of printing presses to exist and censoring everything that went through those presses. Anybody else who built a printing press would promptly find that the government would come in and blow up his equipment.

This has been a bit of a rant, but it shocks me to see what low regard some people have for free speech. The only solution I can see is for the government to ban this kind of action by corporations in a similar way they now ban corporations from selling militarily sensitive technology. Besides Microsoft this would include companies like Cisco who provide the chinese government with the hardware it needs.
posted by afu at 9:17 PM on January 3, 2006 [1 favorite]

Microsoft has chosen to censor some content on their free service that might be objectionable to some of its customers.

So, now we're not allowed to call out behavior we find non-desirable on the part of private companies with which we do business? Are we still allowed to pressure private companies to change their ways? Yeesh.

Letting MS completely off the hook for its current level of complicity with a government that operates antithetical to widely understood notions of freedom and fairness is the height of idiocy.
posted by mediareport at 9:19 PM on January 3, 2006

The only solution I can see is for the government to ban this kind of action by corporations in a similar way they now ban corporations from selling militarily sensitive technology.

Microsoft owns the GOP like its own private bitch, if for no other reason than its legal troubles evaporated once Bush was installed by the Supreme Court. There's no way the State Dept. would dare mess with Bill Gates at this juncture. Corporations can do whatever they please, these days.
posted by Rothko at 9:20 PM on January 3, 2006

"Microsoft owns the GOP like its own private bitch"

I said it would be a solution, not that it was actually going to happen :)
posted by afu at 9:51 PM on January 3, 2006 [1 favorite]

GRAAH, I had an extensive post written here, then I apparently accidently hit the "close tab" keyboard shortcut in Firefox.

Let me try to reconstruct as best I can:

Where does Microsoft advertise free expression? By saying they're offering a service by which you can "Create a blog." That means the default case is, anything you'd expect to be able to do with the generic featureset of a blog, you should be able to do.

The "objectionable content" thing is situational, and taken to its logical conclusion amounts to the content of their service getting censored, not accoring to one culture's stupid standards, but to the total sum of ALL cultures' stupid standards. That's if you're being charitable. If you're not, then amend that to "the total sum of all cultures' stupid standards if they have enough money, power and guns to impose it upon you."

Robert Scoble is a Microsoft employee, and he has a couple of very interesting blog posts about this. The first, which was linked to from Boingboing, is here, and he came out firmly against Microsoft's action. The second post is here, and his comments in that give the whole situation an almost sinister cast:

I have been talking to lots of people today, though, inside and outside of Microsoft. In every instance they asked me to keep those conversations confidential. Why? Cause we’re talking about international relations here and the lives of employees. I wish I could go into it more than that, but I can’t. Not yet. See, it’s real easy as Americans to rattle the door and ask for change, but we don’t live there. Saying “give them the finger” isn’t that easy when there are real human lives at stake. And I don’t need to spell out what I’m talking about here, do I?

One thing I’ve heard is that we spell out our terms of service very explicitly on MSN Spaces. Here in the United States we pull down stuff too at government request, like child pornography or other illegal content.

The second paragraph I already responded to above, the first is very interesting though. It seems that the lives of Microsoft employees in China may be endangered if they don't censor what is, ultimately, a U.S. service, and that's the justification.

Well, damn. The justification of the censoring is people might get killed. What can you do, then?

What you can do is use another fucking blogging service, one that's not tied down by the needs of a "global company." Right there is the drawback of rushing into a totalitarian regime with dollar signs in your eyes, interesting that.

It is also interesting, by the way, to see the ideals of dios and the other conservatives around here being brought around in the defense of censoring on behalf of China. Quite interesting, indeed.
posted by JHarris at 10:22 PM on January 3, 2006

Because I haven't said it about anyone or anything in a heartfelt way for a while, I am compelled to say: fuck China.

If it weren't about the dollars, the rest of the world wouldn't be collectively mouthing Chinese cock.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:43 PM on January 3, 2006

posted by JHarris at 10:59 PM on January 3, 2006

it is an interesting question as to where the censoring actually happened. Was it done by a Chinese national or back in the states. As JHarris says that quote implies that it was done on the Chinese side of things.

If it was on the Chinese side of microsoft and the "lives of employees" are at stake, this means that in China at the Corporate branch Microsoft branch hiring and firing decisions are vetted through a liaison of the CCP. Not that this is really surprising, I think this is standard practice at most Chinese corporations. It makes you question the democratizing power of American capitalism though.

I'd love to see what would happen if they refused to censor this blog and refused to fire any employees. What could the Chines government do? Kick Microsoft out of the country? This would mess with China's image around the world and reduce Chinese productivity more than it would hurt microsoft. Too bad Microsoft is too scared that China will turn into a Linux using nation to ever do something like that.
posted by afu at 12:01 AM on January 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

Although this action makes it slightly harder for Chinese authors to publish things that the Chinese government doesn't want them to, there are still many free, cheap, and expensive options available to them.

Anyone who suggests that this is a civil rights violation, or thuggery is doing a terrible disservice to any of the very real and harmful instances of thuggery and civil rights violations going on around the world.

False. Wrong. From the article:

Anti has re-started his old blog on Blog-city. It is hosted in the U.S., and it's unlikely that Blog-city administrators would respond to Chinese government appeals to take his blog down given that they do not have a Chinese business. But still, the Blog-city URL is blocked by Chinese ISP's so nobody inside China can see it without using a proxy server. (For more info on how to use proxy servers click here, and for information in Chinese click here.)

To get around the block in China, Anti will be emailing his posts to subscribers. He is also says he is going to resume his English blog at a new URL:

It's not absolute, but it's a fairly effective bit of censorship among his reader base – do you suppose they're all subscribers? how does he get other ones? – and it's probably pretty easy to continue to tighten it from there.

Censorship is not rape. Saying that we should only be concerned about scary censorship is foolish. (And good lord this concerns China. Allow me to join stavros. FUCK China.) You don't have to be punched in the face to be censored. You don't have to be intimidated at all. To suggest that the primary harm of censorship is in the pain or fear it might cause the censored party is to demonstrate a complete lack of understanding of what censorship is about.
posted by furiousthought at 12:55 AM on January 4, 2006

afu, China wouldn't ever wholesale kick microsoft out of the country when they could just tighten the screws a little at a time, or impose a fee or a tax here and there and just generally make it known that they aren't happy, while still keeping them close enough to influence.

I've always wondered why the inherently authoritarian nature of corporations was somehow believed to be a democratizing force. Their history in the West would say exactly the opposite.
posted by Space Coyote at 1:37 AM on January 4, 2006

It seems that the lives of Microsoft employees in China may be endangered if they don't censor what is, ultimately, a U.S. service, and that's the justification.

What a sick, sick blackmail we find dios and b1trot defending.

I remember when the right wing considered China the ne plus ultra of all menaces. Now, apparently, they're just another business partner.
posted by dhartung at 2:27 AM on January 4, 2006

While it is easy to say that China is an authoritarian state--it is--and that it therefor controls all media in the state, it is not an accurate assessment of the situation. One very important thing to remember about China is that there are an insane number of people there. In addition to the large population the government does not have nearly the available capital that a country like the United States does with which to police the actions of its citizens.

Even if you take as a given that the government has 1,000s of people expressly employed to censor the internet, that is nothing. Frankly I think the number is much higher the last article that I saw about this reported it was believed there were around 50,000 people employed censoring the internet. Compared to a population that is estimated to be over 1,300,000,000 this is nothing. While I have found that the government is pretty effective at censorship, just like governments everywhere they will never be 100% effective. An insane number of people are using the internet daily and many successfully say or distribute things the government does not want them to.

While the internet is nice it is certainly not the only option available for people who wish to be heard in China. Another thing that computers make possible is very inexpensive publishing. What this means for China is that books that are banned, and because even more popular because of the banning can ready be bought in any major city in China. In Beijing it is not surprisingly difficult to obtain these banned materials in places that most visitors to China go. In most of the rest of the country where most Chinese people live it is insanely easy to purchase almost any banned book that you wish to purchase. Two years ago when a book that was an investigation into rural life in one province became popular and was subsequently banned there was a great cry from the western press that the banning was keeping important information from the rural people of China. I was living in the countryside in China at the time and found it quite amusing that the only way I knew the book was banned was by reading the Western press. I never would have noticed otherwise because I could still purchase it in the same places that I would have before the banning--small private bookstores that stay below the government radar.

An analogous situation, from a law enforcement viewpoint is the banning of certain drugs in America. While the government tries to stop the traffic it simply cannot. If the largest economy in the world cannot stop its population, roughly 1/3 the size of China's, from trading in illicit items, how can anyone seriously expect the Chinese government to be even close to completely effective with such a large population.
posted by wobumingbai at 2:57 AM on January 4, 2006

wobumingbai, I don't think anyone has suggested that the Chinese government is 100% effective at censorship - obviously this is not the case as we still receive information from there which is not put out by the state. Even their intranet, while widely regarded as a marvel (though not a particularly positive one) isn't technically effective, simply inconvenient for the power-user.

Regardless, partially effective censorship (and the parallel indoctrination of the citizenry by state-run education) is still, we can probably agree on, a bad thing. This sort of pseudo-censorship is still plenty effective, regardless of whether those banned books can still be bought in a back alley or not. A government need not make information totally inaccessible, only inconvenient to access, and it has succeeded in keeping a huge portion of its citizenry in the dark; if you're not actively interested in politics then you aren't going to be pushing the boundaries and seeking out these banned books or blogs or whatever. And even a surprisingly large population of democracies such as the USA exhibit this sort of political apathy; I don't doubt it is similarly present in China (where basic needs are a greater concern for a greater percentage of the population), making the government's job that much easier.

I'm not sure if the War on Drugs is a good analogy here, as while that is also obviously ineffective, it also causes incredible harm to the populace - the majority of the USA's prison population is there for drug-related crimes. Often just simple possession. But then again, maybe it is a good analogy.
posted by mek at 3:54 AM on January 4, 2006

I agree with most of what you have said but the reason for my post was because that I have noticed that the general discussion of China in the West, and in this thread, is so colored by the view of the perceived power of the party over the daily lives of the Chinese that people often misunderstand the true situation. For instance, my intention when writing about small private bookstores was not to make the impression that they are places that are figuratively in dark alleys, rather I hoped to convey the idea of their ubiquity.

I think you are right I should not have used the drug dealing analogy because it causes one to think of stealthy sales of banned books. The reality is quite different; the bookstores I am writing about are out in the open and frequented by most people in which most people shop. It is much like the dilemma of buying a pirated CD or DVD in China. While it is possible to buy these in dark alleys, both figurative and literal, most of the trade in ideas takes place right out in the open everywhere but the centers of power. Even in Beijing one only has to travel outside the second ring road, and maybe not even that far, to be able to buy pirated books, CDs and DVDs at stores that one is only able to tell they are selling pirated articles due to the cheap prices. (I have visited Beijing often but never lived there, so am not sure if there are any places closer than the ones I have visited to buy things).
posted by wobumingbai at 4:47 AM on January 4, 2006

It seems that the lives of Microsoft employees in China may be endangered if they don't censor what is, ultimately, a U.S. service, and that's the justification.

What a sick, sick blackmail we find dios and b1trot defending.

To be fair to them....

Ultimately, it was an assumption on my part that it was the lives of Microsoft employees that were in danger. I can't think of anyone else that Microsoft would be concerned with protecting the lives of, but that doesn't mean there couldn't have been. (Maybe U.S. officials? But why would they be in danger from a U.S. blog? Dissidents? Why would they be in danger from MSN Spaces' keyword-based censoring efforts?)
posted by JHarris at 5:25 AM on January 4, 2006

Behold! This is how capitalism denies you a voice. The richest man in the world wants more money, and you don't have a voice because of that. There's always karaoke.
posted by Tarn at 5:28 AM on January 4, 2006

How do you say "Microsoft is the devil" in Chinese?
posted by katiecat at 6:39 AM on January 4, 2006

wobumingbai, I have to say your screen name is highly ironic. It's also interesting that you bring up pirate CDs as being somehow indicative of how little control the CCP actually has. It is not. Pirate CDs are ubiquitously available because the government doesn't care about them that much. They do not threaten the CCP, so enforcement is sporadic, to say the least. It's just like "Rolex" watches; when China wants the latest trade concession, Rolexes disappear from the stores. When the concession is granted, they reappear.

This also touches on the power that the CCP has over MS. There's a widespread belief in China that MS charges more for Chinese versions of its software. This leads to lots of piracy of Windows and other software. Copyright on this stuff is only enforced to the extent that the CCP decrees; if they decide MS is not playing ball, you could reasonably expect that copyright enforcement would cease.

If the government felt strongly threatened by the book you saw, or by the stores that sell it, they would certainly lower their radar and make some lives miserable. That they don't indicates only that it's not a priority, not that they don't have the ability.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:27 AM on January 4, 2006

That is a bizarre statement not supported by the facts.

YOU are a bizarre statement not support by the facts, NERRRD!

B1tr0t's argument is interesting because it all falls apart if there is no competition. Thus, we can assume two things about B1tr0t's worldview:

1. He is in favor of trustbusting. If all the alternatives in a market conspire with each other to avoid competition, then there are no real alternatives. So such collusion must be broken for the good of the market, and thus the sake of freedom of speech.

2. He is in favor of patent reform. What if Microsoft had patented blogging, making themselves the only blogging game in town? His argument doesn't work if anything restricts the number of competitors in the market to a number below that needed to provide a free expression of ideas. What if we get another enabling communication technology, and *that* gets patented? Thus, patents must be reformed for the same of the first amendment.

Do these things make sense? If Chewbacca lives on Endor you must acquit!

(Yeah, I've been awake too many hours in a row, and a lot of stupid things are starting to seem like good ideas....)
posted by JHarris at 1:21 PM on January 4, 2006

I haven't seen a convincing argument that Microsoft has an obligation, moral or otherwise, to be China's free press.

Well, they have an obligation to treat their bloggers with respect above that of China's desire to censor. "Being China's free press" is a tricky issue. What bothers me is that the attitude you express concerning Microsoft's obligation could be extended to cover the U.S. newspaper industry, broadcast media, and lots of other things -- in fact, carry it to its logical extreme, and if you don't have the money to actually own a venue yourself then there's no free speech for you other than actually speaking using your own voice.

Although there are plenty of people making that argument today, it seems obvious to me that democracy cannot work in a world of technology such as ours if you take it to that extreme. (The "But China's not a democracy" argument doesn't work because it was ultimately a U.S. blog that got censored.)
posted by JHarris at 2:25 PM on January 4, 2006

Kirth: Your statement about enforcement is correct about Beijing, Shanghai and probably Guangzhou. Certainly things disappear there when it is in the governments interest. My point is that this same action does not happen away from these centers of power because in fact the central government does not. Obviously the book that I witnessed being banned the government cared about they; took the time to ban it. It certainly disappeared from official governement outlets. But away from the major centers of power control is excercised by local governments, who may or may not listen to the dictates of the central government, and the bok remained on the shelves.

The Party certainly wishes it had the total control of the country that you ascribe to it but that is certainly not the case. Quite frequently there are not only chinese but also english language articles that are expressely about the rash independence of the local governments.
posted by wobumingbai at 3:05 PM on January 4, 2006

Well, I live in China, and for what it's worth, it bugs me. If I were a Chinese citizen, I would have the right to free speech (wait, huh?), but that's not what bothers me. What bothers me is that I want to be able to say what I want to think. So do a lot of people I know who have Chinese citizenship. On MSN blogging servers, I don't get to. Nor am I allowed, usually, in most places in this society. It gets frustrating, and it's especially frustrating knowing that a good number of people and nations in the world don't have to put up with this. I won't argue with the people who say you can't scream "fire" in a crowded theatre, because what I, and most people, want to say amounts to "can we please be allowed to exercise our rights already". Thanks to Microsoft and the millions of everyday decisions made by people who also have a stake in something the Chinese government controls, I won't get to. This is just more of the same, and here you are arguing about whether Microsoft had the right.

Beijing wins this thread.
posted by saysthis at 8:25 PM on January 4, 2006

It is nice that you think this, but why?

Ah, thanks. It's nice that you think it's nice. Why? I don't know, why do you think it's nice?

Where does the obligation come from? Microsoft offers a free service, and suddenly they are obligated to the consumers of this free service above all other interests the company may have?

Just because the monetary cost to the user is free, doesn't mean the user doesn't pay: he pays in time, energy, loss of venue (there are a limited number blog services out there, that's one off the list), and in the difficulty in moving his work to another venue. It is shameful to make a user go through all that, only for him to fall victim to this tactic. If money were involved the situation would be more legally actionable, but that doesn't make it any morally actionable, except to the degree that that money renders down into whatever lost value it would have to be blogger.

Just because Microsoft rated the cost down to zero, for whatever reason, doesn't mean the nature of the relationship is magically different. The unethical nature of Microsoft's action derives, not because some holy, monetary fluid was involved, but because Microsoft did something harmful that a reasonable person who trusted them would not have expected them to do. And since Microsoft DOES profit from it, it stands to lose if bloggers go elsewhere.

As for whether the blogger's interests should be "above all other interests the company may have," well, I haven't seen anyone call that ownership of Windows' IP should be assigned to the blog author. I think you're overstating things.

But this is exactly how the entire US newspaper, broadcast, etc. industry works! You can't just call up the NY Times and expect them to give you a free weekly newspaper column.

But you did not debate my logic, and if you do not challenge that then you have to admit it works poorly. The dominance of U.S. media (indeed, all U.S. corporations) by, relatively speaking, an astonishingly small number of companies, indicates that this aspect of the system is flawed. But then, this is exactly the argument used by many people for public media, which is perpetually in trouble in the U.S.

Free speech isn't about no-cost political expression, it is about liberty in what you say.

I didn't say anything about the no-cost attribute political expression; what I was talking about was political expression that was loud enough to actually touch the public sphere, and that is in reach of ordinary people. If you gag someone's mouth they can still talk -- it's just that no one can hear them.

Owning your own venue isn't difficult. I have a dreamhost account that costs around $10 per month, and could probably host a hundred small blogs on it.

Yes, this is one thing that indicates the nature of the arena is changing, although it is despite the actions of the media owners instead of because of them. But would blogs be so popular if it weren't for the restrictions upon use of practically all the other media? Doesn't this indicate that my point has some degree of validity?

The homeless people of Seattle somehow manage to publish their own newspaper.

Anecdotal evidence. You admit, with the word somehow, that you cannot see how they do it. The fact that the world is not littered with homeless newspapers indicates that their case is exceptional. I would guess much of the means is provided for them, since if they had money they should logically put it towards providing for themselves. There, and that's all without even opening Google.

After opening Google... is Real Change what you're talking about? It looks like it's sold by and concerns homeless people, but is not published by them. Anyway, it is nice that that exists, you might have a point if all homeless had a similar venue provided for them.
posted by JHarris at 1:20 AM on January 5, 2006

wobumingbai, I did not and do not ascribe total control of the country to the CCP. What I am saying is that if they feel strongly enough about something, they will control it. The Falun Gong were pretty much ignored by the government, until they showed up en masse one morning outside the CCP's living quarters in Beijing. Now they are severely persecuted. If you take out newspaper ads saying that your little bookstore has that banned book critical of the CCP, you'd better expect an unpleasant interaction with the police. You want to exercise free speech and criticize the government? You'll probably get away with it, up to the point that the CCP notices you doing it. Then they'll stop you. Please don't attempt to prove me wrong; I like having other viewpoints presented reasonably, and if you kick the government in the shins, I'm afraid I won't hear any more from you.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:34 AM on January 5, 2006

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