The Redmond software company, operator of a popular blogging technology called MSN Spaces, said Tuesday it will endeavour to make blogs available to users elsewhere even if Microsoft decides it is legally obliged to block them in a particular country.
The company also pledged to provide users with a clear notice that it has shut down a website when the decision to do so stemmed from a legal mandate. Previously, it has simply said the content was unavailable.
Brad Smith, Microsoft’s top lawyer, said in an interview that the circumstances of a shutdown will dictate whether a blog’s archived content alone will continue to be available elsewhere, or whether the person can continue posting information to users outside the country that ordered the blockage
“Some of this, I think, we just have to recognize is evolving technology and changing law,” said Smith, speaking by phone from a Microsoft-sponsored government conference in Lisbon, Portugal.
MSN Spaces, which allows users to post journals, pictures and other content on the Internet, boasts 35 million users, including 3.3 million in China.
The company has maintained that it is important to be able to provide users across the globe with such tools even if local laws constrain what it can make viewable in specific countries.
“We think that blogging and similar tools are powerful vehicles for economic development and for creativity and free expression. They are tools that do good,” Smith said. “We believe that it’s better to make these tools available than not, but that isn’t the end of the discussion, either.”
Late last year, Microsoft shut down the site of a popular Chinese blogger at Beijing’s request. The blog, written under the pen name An Ti by Zhao Jing, touch on sensitive topics such as China’s relations with Taiwan and press freedoms in China.
Microsoft rivals, including Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc., also have grappled with – and received criticism surrounding – how they censor their offerings in foreign countries.
Google said last week that it would filter sensitive topics from web searches in China. Yahoo came under fire last year after it provided the government with e-mail account information for a Chinese journalist who was later convicted for violating state secrecy laws.
Smith said Tuesday that Microsoft hopes to build industry and government support for more formal policies on dealing with content censorship requests from foreign governments, but he wouldn’t say whether he had spoken with competitors such as Google and Yahoo directly.
John Palfrey, executive director of Harvard Law School’s Berkman Centre for Internet and Society, lauded Microsoft’s moves as an important first step.
But he expected Microsoft to face considerable government pressure if it does start disclosing government censorship and makes good on its pledge to show censored data outside the country in question.
“Where we’ll see whether the policy is meaningful or not is the first time the state comes to Microsoft … and says, “So you’re publishing to the world the subversive political statements of somebody online. Who is it?”‘ he said. “Does Microsoft fold or stand pat?