Twenty-eight floors above the traffic-choked streets of China's most wired city, blogger and tech entrepreneur Isaac Mao sums up his opinion of Microsoft and its treatment of the Chinese bloggers with one word. "Evil," says Mao. "Internet users know what's evil and what's not evil, and MSN Spaces is an evil thing to Chinese bloggers." Mao, 33, knows something about the topic. In 2002, he was one of China's first bloggers, and since then his ideas on harnessing blogs, peer-to-peer and grass-roots technologies to empower the Chinese people have made him a respected voice in the global blogosphere. Today, Mao is a partner in a venture capital firm that funds Chinese internet startups, including a blog-hosting service occupying part of the market Microsoft hopes to move in on with MSN Spaces. The Chinese version of MSN Spaces is linked to the new MSN China portal, launched last month in partnership with Shanghai Alliance Investment, a company funded by the city government here. Last week that partnership plunged Microsoft into the long-standing controversy surrounding the Chinese government's internet censorship policies, after Asian blogs and news reports revealed that MSN Spaces blocks Chinese bloggers from putting politically sensitive language in the names of their blogs, or in the titles of individual blog entries. The words and phrases blocked by Microsoft include "Taiwan independence," "Dalai Lama," "human rights," "freedom" and "democracy." In a statement, lead MSN product manager Brooke Richardson said, "MSN abides by the laws, regulations and norms of each country in which it operates. The content posted on member spaces is the responsibility of individuals who are required to abide by MSN's code of conduct." Mao dismisses that statement as disingenuous. The company, he says, is going above and beyond official censorship practices, which deal decisively with speech critical of the ruling communist government, but don't outright ban words like "freedom." "They could try to reach a balance, so the users will understand, but the government won't try to make trouble for the business," says Mao. "Instead, they're just trying to flatter the government."
I've been reading Elio Gaspari's history of the military dictatorship in Brazil (1964-1984), so I'm especially aware of the puxa-saco collusion of big media companies with police states these days. This looks like a classic case. Bill: Fire your PR consultant. Any story in a major publication that calls you evil in the first paragraph is a sign that you've totally lost control of your message.
Reminds me of something that goes on at a certain workplace I know of. They cover financial transaction technology, but their stupid firewall will not let them google sites with the word "gambling" in them, lest they be playing Texas hold'em instead of working. Thing is, the gambling sites and casinos are huge users of the really advanced straight-through transaction processing stuff. Cantor Fitzgerald even recently got a WiFi gambling venture cleared by the Nevada legislature, very similar in concept to its Blackberry bond-trading gizmo.
It's so absurd. I'm sure by now everyone in China has started using the phrase "matzo balls" or "bicycle seat" as a code word for "freedom." The Dalai Lama could be referred to as "Big Bird" or "Kurt Cobaine." Instead of T'ienamen Square, say Barbara Streisand or Mickey Mouse. Why not just unplug the Internet, send everyone back to the countryside to grow rice, and get it over with? Free, powerful personal cryptography and the human capacity for irony means nothing short of genocide is going to root this out.