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MSN Censorship & Revisiting The Need For Better Disclosure

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Chinese target Web's 'prohibited language' from the Associated Press looks at how those in China wishing to blog on MSN's new MSN Spaces service will find certain words such as "democracy," "freedom" and "human rights" are deemed taboo, with the cooperation of Microsoft. It raises anew the issue censorship by search and portal companies and that if they're forced to do it, couldn't they better disclose this?

With MSN Spaces, try to use those words in the subject line of your posts in China and a "Prohibited language in text, please delete" message apparently appears. Put them in the body copy, and apparently you are home free.

Many of the stories I've read about the censorship have condemned Microsoft for caving to the Chinese government in the same way Google and Yahoo have done.

Let's be clear, however. Google web search results that bring up errors, as highlighted in the AP story, continue to be the acts of the Chinese government doing filtering. Google has never said that it censors its Chinese web search results itself. It has said the opposite, that it doesn't.

Google News is a different matter. There, Google has acknowledged censoring some of its results, omitting those that it says people in China couldn't reach anyway because of Chinese government blocking. China Blocks Google News -- So Bring On The Disclosure looks at this in more depth.

Back to web search results, while Google hasn't said it does any censoring for China, it does (as do other search engines) censor web search results in various countries because of national laws. Got To Censor Search Listings? Why Not Disclose? and Revisiting Google Censorship In Germany & France provides more information that I've covered, in the past.

Yahoo Filtering Search For China also from me in the past touches briefly on how Yahoo has long done censorship for China, yet no one seems to obsess over it in the way they have about Google potentially censoring web search. It links over to When blogging can get you locked up from News.com, which  mentions Yahoo search censorship briefly at the end of the article.

Interestingly, no one has covered yet whether searches at the MSN search engine are censored. If I hear news of this, I'll update.

Microsoft blogger Robert Scoble self-admittedly got big pushback for saying "It's not my place to make their laws. It certainly is not my right to force their hand with business power," when commenting on the issue. My response to Scoble from Rebecca MacKinnon is a good example of that pushback, overall with an agreement that while laws can't be imposed, businesses can certainly pressure for change. The article has lots of good links and observations on the censoring system in general that works with or without involvement by Western companies.

In the end, there's all types of censorship around the world for various reasons. Laws in various countries may require it. In those cases, companies either have to follow those laws or not operate in those countries. That's certainly a moral position some might want to take, if they strongly disagree with the laws.

But the exact type of censorship or content censored is also an issue. Some types of censorship many people might agree with, such as pulling links to pictures of nude children, prohibiting discussion of illegal activities designed to harm or kill people or removing spam content considered to harm search relevancy.

Other types of censorship is much more of an issue, such as pulling material because of a political view stated, or illegal activity such as removing copy protection that many might disagree should exist or because a company simply doesn't like another company's product (see Webposition.com de-indexed for an example of this on Google).

In the end, I keep coming back with disclosure as a key solution. If you feel you need to censor something, disclose that fact. With Microsoft, the message doesn't have to be:

Prohibited language in text, please delete.

It could instead be:

The Chinese government has declared the words you wish to use to be "prohibited language." We're required to tell you that you need to delete these, if you wish to post. Please also do not use any of the other words on this list, either. Microsoft doesn't agree with these restrictions, but we're required to follow them in order to provide services to Chinese citizens. If you disagree with the restriction, you'll need to contact your government to get the ban lifted.

Maybe it won't do anything to promote change. Then again, perhaps it could help. But companies forced to censor material certainly should push back that they'll do so only with disclosure. After all, during situations such as the Iraq war, reporters routinely let us know if transmissions were approved by either Iraqi or American/coalition forces. Search engines certainly could give us similar disclosure.

Postscript: I forgot to mention this letter from Reporters Without Borders sent to Google in May. "Will you agree to censor your search engine if asked to by Beijing?," it asks. It notes that Google has not altered search results in the way that Yahoo has. It obviously doesn't want that to continue -- but why not also send another letter out to Yahoo at the same time, asking them to stop the censorship they do?

Postscript 2: Screenshots of the blocking on MSN and ways around it here.


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