Microsoft Spaces – rush to judgment?

I have to admit it: I’m uncomfortable about the big blogosphere brouhaha over Microsoft’s closure of Michael Anti’s blog. I joined in and posted about it as did nearly all of my fellow regional bloggers.

We all followed the lead of Rebecca MacKinnon, former Beijing bureau chief for CNN and one mf my favorite bloggers. Her monumental post garnered hundreds of trackbacks and sparked worldwide media attention. It premise was simple, specific and backed up by evidence: “his [Anti’s] blog was TAKEN DOWN by MSN people. Not blocked by the Chinese government.”

It was to be three full days before Microsoft was interviewd in the NY Times, offering a somewhat different scenario. Here’s the key sentence, paraphrasing Microsoft spokesperson Brooke Richardson:

Ms. Richardson of Microsoft said Mr. Zhou’s site was taken down after Chinese authorities made a request through a Shanghai-based affiliate of the company.

Whether or not the censorship was ordered by Beijing or Redmond, it’s a depressing and upsetting story. However, what set this story apart was the key assertion by MacKinnon that this was Microsoft acting on its own to appease the CCP, second guessing what the dictatorship would want them to do and zealously going out of its way to cooperate.

Frankly, I’m a little disappointed that Rebecca hasn’t dealt with the now three-day-old NYT story and helped give us her perspective. After creating this tidal wave, she owes us something – at least an explanation and her interpretation of what’s going on.

The way the story was first reported led most bloggers, from Instapuppy to Boing Boing, to blame Microsoft. And maybe there is still justification for blaming them. But the story emerging now is quite different from the one Rebecca first presented, and I feel uncomfortable about the whole thing.

Rebecca, do you still see this story from the same prism through which you saw it last week?

[Note: post edited at 9:30pm Taiwan time.]

The Discussion: 23 Comments

I wonder what the explicit Chinese regulations, or at least the specifics of this request were. For example, did MSN have to delete the entire account? Or could they have just killed the front end? Then Anti would still have, in effect, a private diary.

Other questions: Why couldn’t the Great Firewall do this? Why the request to a private company to delete the account? Why haven’t the MSN blogs reproducing Anti’s posts not been deleted (I haven’t checked them today, I assume they’re still up)?

Most importantly, why make Michael Anti a martyr? He’s only become more visible because of this, not less.

January 8, 2006 @ 12:44 am | Comment

eswn deals with some of these questions today.

January 8, 2006 @ 12:50 am | Comment

ESWNs post illustrates my point, but doesn’t answer it. Why are those blogs he lists still active?

I know we’re not going to get an answer on this, but with MSN members basically daring the service to punish them and Anti showing up in Forbes and the New York Times, what exactly did the authorities hope to accomplish? Why not use subtler tactics?

January 8, 2006 @ 12:57 am | Comment

Rebecca was right on this Richard. The only question is whether or not it was an automatic deletion of the blog or whether or not staff deleted it by hand. Let’s assume it’s the former, but even so it’s still MSN’s action. Check out this statement from MSN:

“”MSN is committed to ensuring that products and services comply with global and local laws, norms, and industry practices. Most countries have laws and practices that require companies providing online services to make the Internet safe for local users. Occasionally, as in China, local laws and practices require consideration of unique elements,” the spokesperson said.


January 8, 2006 @ 12:59 am | Comment

Yes, she may well be right. I quote Rebecca all the time and have huge respect for her. But the story does seem to be different in at least one respect from that described in her first post, and I wish she would address the Microsoft explanation – maybe she can prove thatr it’s bollocks, but I am surprised to see it not referenced at all on her site.

Whether she’s technically right or not, the meme that sprang up with ferocious velocity was that Microsoft was second-guessing the CCP and deleting blogs in advance of CCP complaints in order to delight the bureaucrats. And she should address this.

January 8, 2006 @ 1:06 am | Comment

Ms. Richardson of Microsoft said Mr. Zhou’s site was taken down after Chinese authorities made a request through a Shanghai-based affiliate of the company.

This explanation by Microsoft seems to have odd word choices. Governments usually issue orders, not requests. And why was the request send through a “Shanghai-based affiliate” of Microsoft and not directly to a Microsoft branch office? If somebody at Microsoft heard from an friend that someone in the government was unhappy about the content of Anti’s blog, would that technically constitute a request by authorities through an affiliate? It seems to me that Microsoft’s explanation is trying to be as vague as possible. If Microsoft was really given a direct order by the government to take down Anti’s blog, why don’t they just directly say so instead using these funny word choices?

January 8, 2006 @ 1:59 am | Comment

Hui Mao, that’s what I was getting at a little late in the thread on this a few days ago.

Self-censorship is self-censorship. If there is no legal order, which depending on where the blogs are hosted there may not be any legal jurisdiction to make a request, then it’s still Microsoft pulling the plug on the blog.

And it does look like it’s been done by hand, rather than automatic. And why the CCP chose this path rather than through the Great Firewall? Deal struck with Microsoft???

January 8, 2006 @ 2:23 am | Comment

I don’t think that you should take everything Becky says as being gold, she’s pumped me for my sources before rather than finding her own like I did.

January 8, 2006 @ 4:51 am | Comment

Tom, I’m not giving Microsoft a free pass at all. It’s just that it’s transgression is different than I first was led to believe.

January 8, 2006 @ 6:29 am | Comment

Richard, whatever the ‘request,’ Microsoft did delete the site by its own hands and it was not filtered by Beijing. Rebecca’s quote “Note, his blog was TAKEN DOWN by MSN people. Not blocked by the Chinese government.” – i.e. this is not the Great Firewall, this is Microsoft.
Rebecca said nothing incorrect, although it may have been misinterpreted. Personally, I very strongly believe – am convinced actually – that this stems from the Beijing News purge. I’ve posted as much here.

January 8, 2006 @ 7:25 am | Comment

I haven’t looked up on all the details, but – what kind of authority can Beijing claim on a msn blog ? Could they also go over at, say, livejournal and go, “hey, take that blog down” ? Do they claim that everything written in chinese on the net comes under their juridiction ?

I can understand “complying with local law” when it comes to, for example, food regulations. But the internet ? How do you define what’s local and what’s not ? By where the server sits ? By where the company (or it’s branch) is from ?

January 8, 2006 @ 8:16 am | Comment


China is an emerging market, and Microsoft have done a number of high cash deals with Beijing.

Right now, Microsoft wants to keep Beijing happy, if it doesn’t then the entire of its blog site might be banned, not to mention a lot of its other services, and if that happens Beijing will simply invite the next big company on the list in to take Microsoft’s place.

This is about money and access to China’s markets, and when money comes in, morls often go out.

THe one exception to this has been AOL, AOL broke of a 50 million dollar deal a year or so ago because it was concerned about being assosiated with censorship.

Microsoft, however, put cash before values and killed anti’s blog.

January 8, 2006 @ 8:44 am | Comment


But Emile raises an important point – where does it stop? Will we get to the point where China demands MSN censors or deletes all comments about China that is doesn’t like around the world? If we follow the logic that some people are propsing there’s no reason why non-Chinese people should have their MSN blogs deleted as well.

MSN has to draw a line somewhere, so it can’t complain that it can never not obey Beijing.

January 8, 2006 @ 9:16 am | Comment

Peking Duck,

I don’t think the NYT’s quote from Microsoft disproves anything I originally said. I said that the take-down happened at the MSN server-level, which means the physical act of censorship had to have been done by MSN staff, not Chinese authorities. In fact I speculated that Anti’s blog was taken down in response to the objections raised by at least one person at Bokee, whose editorial may have prodded the authorities to complain to MSN. So I don’t think I mislead anybody here. I do think that some people misinterpreted me, however. But they could only have done so if they didn’t read my whole post, and just read select quotes from it off other blogs.. which I think is what happened in many cases. This is how the blogosphere can sometimes become a dangerous game of telephone.

A couple other points:

It is true that MSN Spaces does take down at least some politically sensitive blogs on their own initiative. If you read my original post, I described setting up a blog with politically sensitive words and phrases in it, which was taken down after 2-3 days at the MSN Spaces server level. I am quite positive this did not happen in response to a Chinese government request, because the blog had zero traffic.

Secondly, while MSN Spaces was responding to a Chinese government request, there is still no evidence that Anti had done anything against Chinese law. The Chinese constitution in fact defends his right to write what he did. I think it is objectionable that MSN does nothing to defend their users’ right to write things that are completely legal – even under Chinese law. What he wrote is politically inconvenient for those currently holding power, but that’s very different than being illegal. I see no evidence that MSN pushed back on the authorities at all in defence of a user’s right, guarranteed in the Chinese constitution, to express himself lawfully. I see no evidence that MSN asked the authorities to explain how exactly his blog was illegal.

January 8, 2006 @ 1:26 pm | Comment


Rebecca, get a clue…the USSR and Peoples Republic of China, and damn near every other Communits autocracy of the 20th Century have had all KINDS of “rights” listed in their constitutions, none of which meant a damn thing.

There is no rule of law in China, merely the rule of men and their individual whim to keep and extend their own power.

How very sadly naive.

January 8, 2006 @ 2:08 pm | Comment

What is this? I just re-read Rebecca’s post and comment above and I see nothing inaccurate, but this thread is starting to look like a dogpile.

“After creating this tidal wave, she owes us something – at least an explanation and her interpretation of what’s going on.”

Huh? The Microsoft statement changes nothing. The blog was still removed at the server level, not blocked by the Nanny. Rebecca’s questions about Bokee and why a lighter touch wasn’t used still stand unanswered. I certainly don’t see how anything is “owed” here. I’d also point out that a sizable chunk of Rebecca’s post is based on ESWN’s translation of the Bokee statement, yet no one seems to be calling for ESWN to account for anything.

“I don’t think that you should take everything Becky says as being gold, she’s pumped me for my sources before rather than finding her own like I did.”

Wow. Irrelevant inneuendo against Rebecca’s character. ACB is saying we should read Rebecca’s posts with skepticism, not because skepticism is a healthy virtue, but because she personally asked him for info. The statement above suggests all kinds of things – laziness, greed, manipulation – about Rebecca. ACB doesn’t back it up though. I’d point out ACB rarely provides any links for his articles – what’s the matter, ACB, don’t want to point out that your article on the Gay Festival being shut down is basically the AFP article + your opinionating? Finally ACB, your “Microsoft wants money, case closed” argument dismisses all the important details that we’re missing.

“How very sadly naive.”

Hey Mercer, how about contributing something meaningful instead of ignorant ad hominem attacks? There are alot of behind the scenes details that are worth investigating, but you seem to dismiss the relevance of them in favor of your political agenda. I hate to say it, but you actually give credence to people like Math, China Hand and – dare I say it – MAJor Ethnocentric.

Yeah, I said it.

Instead of talking about what Microsofts legal teams role in the Anti action might be, or if the Bokee editorial is involved, or when a request becomes a legal order, or why Microsoft didn’t ask to see a warrant, or why they didn’t use the Nanny, or ANY of these interesting questions, you two use it as an excuse to make sweeping generalizations about “money and morals” and communism. Generalizations that do us no good in figuring out precisely what occurred, or actually trying to learn something new.

Bingfeng mentioned at his site that only when censorship rules become explicit can there be any real movement against them. Instances where a corporation like Microsoft acts according to those rules are an opportunity to make some of those rules explicit, and therefore vulnerable. The question is whether Microsoft will remain as opaque as the government, or reveal those rules due to public scrutiny.

Meanwhile, MacKinnon has acted like a responsible journalist and a) linked to her sources, unlike ACB usually does and b) refrained from meaningless hot air rhetoric, unlike Mercer.

January 8, 2006 @ 3:16 pm | Comment

Dave (and Rebecca), I agree, some of these comments are too vitriolic, and I never meant to bash Rebecca – I am not saying she posted anything wrong, I just felt that there was new information and that her explanation was incomplete. I also think there was a rush to judgement, not necessariy by Rebecca but by the blogosphere, which jumped to a wrong conclusion (i.e., that this was done without a specific call from Beijing to delete the blog).

Emile, I wrote a long post earlier, based on quotes from Rebecca and Imagethief, about the need for limits, the point where Microsoft (and any company) must push back and refuse to cooperate with frivolous or non-existent “laws” of repressive regimes. Totally agree with them and always have. What MS did was totally wrong. But I now see the story in a somewhat different light, and I feel many people have a misimpression of the actual sequence of events, not by any falsehood or obfuscation on Rebecca’s part, but by new information that I felt shed new light on what happened. I was surprised that there was no reference to it at all by Rebecca following her incredible detective work, which I have praised to the skies and tracked back to many times.

Maybe I should have made clear that the “rush to judgment” was not necessarily Rebecca’s, but the other bloggers like myself, who didn’t understand all the facts.

January 8, 2006 @ 5:10 pm | Comment


Do you remember that article you linked to a year and a half or two years ago by the journalist in Beijing attending the State dinner/speech commenting on her participation and self-censorship? Might be time to reflect on the willingness to live with the system and not make an effort of push back.

Do you think that Microsoft would censor keywords in the creation of blog titles, if a “request” wasn’t made to block them with a list of keywords? Ms. MacKinnon’s research that showed blogs she created getting pulled demonstrates that Microsoft has some level of pro-active self-censorship and the Anti yanking shows some level of re-active self-censorship. Either way it’s still extra-legal and the act of censorship is conducted by Microsoft.

As long as the system avoids the Chinese or US courts and flourishes under the table, there are also all sorts of abuses and cans of worms available to surface. When Microsoft’s contacted affiliate is in Shanghai, rather than Beijing or Hong Kong, it sets off questions as to the forces behind the requests and whether the requests might not even be reflective of policy at the top of the CCP food chain.

January 8, 2006 @ 5:53 pm | Comment

Do you think that Microsoft would censor keywords in the creation of blog titles, if a “request” wasn’t made to block them with a list of keywords?

Tom, I think you know where I stand on this. I’ve been quite outspoken in criticizing Microsoft and yahoo and Cisco (for years). I guess this is the bottom line for me: Reading Rebecca’s original post, I would have believed that Microsoft’s degree of pro-active censorship was greater than I believe it is now. That’s all. What fueled the fires of this story was exactly that – the image of Microsoft going out of its way to accommodate and second-guess the bureaucrats. They are guilty (based on the evidence at hand), but the story is not exactly the same as it was originally told.

In the earlier thread, eswn commented:

In the NYT article:

here is the money quote:
Ms. Richardson of Microsoft said Mr. Zhou’s site was taken down after Chinese authorities made a request through a Shanghai-based affiliate of the company.

That kinda changes the complexion, doesn’t it?

You, Tom, replied:

Not for me.

What sort of request? If it was a formal legal request, why would they bother going through an affiliate rather than to HQ?

If there is no formal request, then it’s still a matter of self-censorship, even if Microsoft is now hearing whispering in their ears. Sets a pretty damn low hurdle, if all it takes is a whisper to make ’em jump.
Posted by: Tom – Daai Tou Laam at January 7, 2006 06:13 AM

Eswn answered,


the difference to me is this:

originally, i thought that some low-level MSN Spaces employee in China took the liberty of interpreting the notice about coverage on Beijing News to delete Anti’s blog. that was appalling. i don’t want to see these droids running around at MSN Spaces or any other outfit making these kinds of suppositions.

based upon the Richardson statement, a MSN Spaces employee took dictation from the Chinese government via a MS affiliate to delete Anti’s blog. At least this droid did not have a mind of his/her own. The question now becomes whether MSN Spaces should be taking dictation versus letting an employee act as super-judge and super-interpreter of Chinese law. that is why everything changes.
Posted by: esw at January 7, 2006 10:23 AM

I admit, it was eswn’s comments that got me to write this post. I went back again and again to Rebecca’s blog in hopes of an update or acknowledgement of this information. Eswn said it changes everything; I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I do agree that there is a new dimension that most (perhaps none) of the bloggers who picked up the ball took into account, myself included. Maybe it doesn’t change everything, but it’s an important element of a complex story and one that needs to be part of the mosaic.

I’m trying to be as fair as i possibly can. When i was seen as being too hard on Yahoo I got blasted, and now, when I’m seen as giving Microsoft too much slack I get blasted. That’s okay; blogging is like that. I just have to call it like I see it, and I also have to be willing to go back and question my own conclusions.

January 8, 2006 @ 7:11 pm | Comment

That’s what I’m talking about. I want to also point out that Microsoft still hasn’t really explained what precisely occurred between it’s Shanghai affiliate and whatever government authorities contacted them. What channels did this go through? What precisely was Microsoft told? I think the onus is still on Microsoft to explain exactly how this was done. Simply saying “Chinese authorities” contacted the Shanghai-affiliate isn’t enough. Which authorities? National? Which ministry? What regulations were cited and in reference to what material on Anti’s blog? Transparency should certainly be demanded from Microsoft. Tom’s right that we haven’t been given any clarification on how the request was articulated nor where in the Chinese government hierarchy it came from.

January 8, 2006 @ 7:29 pm | Comment

If you read my comment carefully, you’ll see that I was not attacking Rebecca’s underlying position, which when summed up I take to be “MS is evil for taking the entire blog down”, with which I happen to agree.

I was merely attacking her naivette in thinking that the “rights” list in the PRC constitution are worth the paper (or bits) that it is printed on.

I think that MS was indeed evil in taking it down. Do business with tyrants, and you end up being one yourself.

This whole issue IMNSHO is something that the CCP could have dealt with at the border, uhm, Great Firewall. Cisco seem to be profiting just nicely from their cooperation with oppression. This is blatantly nothing more than the CCP trying to spread their censorship to anywhere on the net that is within their reach.

To me it doesn’t matter which part of the PRC tyranny the ‘request’ came from, as from everything I’ve read regarding the Chinese legal system, it isn’t predictable or any kind of uniform application of any guiding, consistent legal principle.

It is a classic “rule by men” judicial sham where the “courts” rule much more in line with the personal financial and power interests of the magistrate involved.

Not that we citizens of the US have ever been able to sue the US Govt. without their own consent. That’s a neat little part of the US Constitution that is not very frequently discussed, and facilitates much abuse.

January 8, 2006 @ 11:27 pm | Comment

For a related issue, search on the phrase “news we kept to ourselves” — CNN spiked stories to keep its Baghdad office.

Is there only a single “best path” to dealing with an unjust power structure…?

January 9, 2006 @ 12:51 am | Comment

A note about Rebecca’s post:

The fact that the additional blogs she created with sensitive keywords were deleted is more evidence that Microsoft is doing some censorship on it’s side without prodding by the minions of the Nanny. however, it’s possible that such low-content pseudoblogs might have been interpreted as spam, and got deleted for that reason (i.e. if I make a few experimental low-content blogs about washing powder, them getting deleted isn’t really censorship).

Which brings me to another point: who goes through the blogs and decides what gets deleted ? At least for the brand new experimental blogs in chinese, I’d suspect a low-level chinese grunt – employed by Microsoft, but quite likely also with some experience working in chinese companies, in which cleaning up “politically inappropriate” content is as much part of usual work as cleaning up spam is.

That’s probably not what happened for Anti’s blog, but it seems like a reasonable explanation for the rest.

January 10, 2006 @ 5:38 am | Comment

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