M$ compliance with censorship raises alarms

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Chinese bloggers who use Microsoft's new Web portal to post messages captioned "democracy," "capitalism," "liberty" or "human rights" are greeted with a scolding response.

A bright yellow warning appears: "This message includes forbidden language. Please delete the prohibited expression."

The restrictions were agreed upon by Microsoft and its Chinese partner, the government-linked Shanghai Alliance Investment. But the forbidden words have sparked a debate here and in the online world about how free speech could be threatened when the world's most powerful software company forges an alliance with the largest Communist country.

Multinational companies from cigarette makers to baby formula companies routinely change their advertising and other corporate behavior to adapt to local laws. Experts say that Internet companies such as Microsoft are often flashpoints for controversy because their products are linked to free speech issues and many rules governing blogs and electronic speech are evolving.

"There's a spectrum here," said Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and an author of a recent study on Internet censorship in China. "It's one thing to provide a regime with steel, another to provide bullets, and another to serve as the executioner."

Officials with the Redmond, Wash. company argue that the software giant is only following local laws and that any disadvantage is outweighed by benefits users get from the software giant's services.

"Even with the filters, we're helping millions of people communicate, share stories, share photographs and build relationships," said Adam Sohn, Microsoft's global sales and marketing director. "For us, that is the key point here."

Company product manager Brooke Richardson told the Los Angeles Times that "MSN abides by the laws, regulations and norms of each country in which it operates."

Microsoft points out that filtering objectionable words is nothing new. Even in the United States, the company prevents several words from being used in titles, including "whore" and "pornography."

Yahoo and Google, two other large technology firms, have had to limit their search results in France and Germany, where Nazi propaganda and memorabilia are banned.

In China, computers users often find that filters on Yahoo and other search engines prevent them from accessing pages on topics deemed sensitive by the Communist Party.

Human rights groups, including Reporters Without Borders, say Microsoft is sacrificing free speech principles in its headlong quest for profits and that the company should follow a higher standard.

"No one should break the law, but at the same time we all believe in universal values," said Julien Pain, head of the group's Internet monitoring group. "If China required underage children to work, would you do it? Free speech is not an American value or a French value. It's a human value."

It's natural for companies to adjust their practices in foreign countries to get profits," he said. "As they say in politics, there are no permanent friends, just permanent interests."

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