Microsoft responds with omissions

Amnesty International’s campaign urging Microsoft not to engage in human rights abuses has triggered a response from Microsoft. Microsoft claims it “has increased the ability of Chinese citizens to engage in free expression” and that Amnesty’s claims of Microsoft’s censorship are misleading. A first glance indicates that Microsoft may have a few points:

1. Microsoft says it has not signed “Public Pledge of Self Regulation” for the Chinese Internet industry (Microsoft is not listed as a member of ISOC). Still, Microsoft does self-censor its blog and search services in China.

2. Microsoft says that its beta search engine in China “does not block searches for particular key words, including ‘democracy,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘human rights'”. Indeed, searches for these terms (in English and Chinese) do produce results. (The results do seem to be weighted in favour of content hosted in China, but I’ll leave it to others to investigate that further.)

However, does, in fact, censor its search results. Rather than restrict what keywords a user can search for MSN simply removes specific web sites from the results displayed to the user. Following,’s example, MSN indicates that results have been removed. MSN provides a link to a page that explains their filtering policy which states that sometimes, in accordance with local law, certain results will not be shown.

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For example, using the “site:” modifier which restricts results to a particular website, a search for “” returns a page that indicates that although there are millions of items there were no results found and that some results have been removed. MSN China has removed the BBC News website from its results set.

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The reality is that Microsoft does censor is MSN China search engine.

3. Microsoft says that users of its MSN Spaces blogging service in China “are not prohibited from using the words ‘democracy,’ ‘freedom,’ or ‘human rights’ in blog titles or blog content.” But it admits that there are restricted terms when it comes to the “account name, space name, or space sub-title – or in photo captions.” Microsoft claims that the key words ‘democracy,’ ‘freedom,’ and ‘human rights’ are not on their restricted term list. Microsoft states that “MSN Spaces does not filter blog content in any way.”

Microsoft is choosing the terms used very carefully, ostensibly to obfuscate the fact that MSN spaces does censor users. Note the distinction between blog titles and blog content. Blog content seems to refer to the “body” of a blog post, which does not appear to be filtered, but blog titles are in fact filtered. Although the specific words noted are no (or no longer) filtered, terms such as 天安门事件 (“tiananman massacre” in Chinese) are in fact filtered. If a blog post title contains such terms the user receives a warning indicating that the post contains prohibited language and the blog entry is not posted.

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MSN Spaces content is in fact censored, just not in the “body” of a blog post.

Microsoft appears to be trying to divert attention from their censorship practices focusing on the specifics of their filtering system. Researchers are at a distinct disadvantage as Microsoft keeps the exact list of censored terms secret and can modify the list at anytime. In fact, Microsoft’s main claim that Amnesty International is inaccurate by stating that the words ‘democracy,’ ‘freedom,’ and ‘human rights’ (presumably they mean in Chinese) are censored by MSN is because MSN modified their original restricted term list.

Research conducted by Rebecca MacKinnon in June 2005 clearly shows that MSN Spaces prevented a blog titled 我爱言论自由人权和民主, which translates to “I love freedom of speech, human rights and democracy” from being created.

While the words identified by Amnesty International are not filtered for specific blog entries or in the MSN China search engine they were used as part of MSN Spaces’ filtering and Amnesty is rightly drawing attention to this. Microsoft, on the other hand, is using precision to deflect criticism and make it appear that they don’t censor their services at all.

This underscores the need for anti-censorship community to be thorough in our research. Since these companies (and countries) can change how and what they filter at anytime they may use this to attempt to discredit critics. It is very important for free speech advocates to accurately identify companies that are complicit is censorship world wide.

Microsoft claims that it “has increased the ability of Chinese citizens to engage in free expression” when in fact all they have done is introduced censored services that domestic Chinese firms already provide. Instead, Microsoft is, as Amnesty International states “aiding repression, censorship, and violation of fundamental freedoms”. By introducing yet another censored service in China — to compete for market share with other censored services — Microsoft is normalizing censorship. Rather than being the exception, censorship is becoming the rule and when the largest and most powerful technology companies on earth support it, it becomes increasingly difficult to fight against.

One comment.

  1. I confirm that Microsoft has changed the list of keywords that you cannot post in the title of a post.
    We had tested MSN spaces when they released it and terms such as Human rights and democracy were blocked, which is no longer the case.

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