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Microsoft’s censorship in China violates trust

An Internet that has thrived in part because of minimal governmental supervision is at risk because Microsoft and other mega-corporations can't keep their hands off it.

The most recent muscle flex by corporate profiteers began when Zhao Jing (aka Michael Anti), a Beijing-based researcher for the New York Times, posted comments on his blog critical of a management purge at Beijing News. He posted them on a blog hosted by MSN Spaces.

China complained and Microsoft, loath to jeopardize its stream of Chinese revenue, promptly deleted Mr. Anti's blog.

"MSN is committed to ensuring that products and services comply with global and local laws, norms and industry practices," the company said in defending its action. "Occasionally, as in China, local laws and practices require consideration of unique elements."

Yahoo used almost identical words in September after it, according to reports, divulged the identity of a Chinese citizen who made the mistake of using a Yahoo e-mail account. He used the account to send foreign-based Web sites the text of an internal Communist Party message.

The Yahoo customer has no Internet access now. Thanks to Yahoo, he is in jail.

Historically, mass communication — in the United States and elsewhere — has been controlled by governments and large media corporations. One of the transforming aspects of the Internet has been the lack of censorship. Governments have been, for the most part, unable to squelch digital free speech. Until recently, corporations have been content to ignore the content of Internet communications.

Microsoft and Yahoo, by bowing to China's demands, threaten to undermine a tool that could create friendships and ideas that cross national borders.

Internet companies like Microsoft and Yahoo inherit an obligation that they should not sever from their earnings. That obligation is to protect the unfettered speech that has made the Internet the most democratic of all institutions.

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