Microsoft and Yahoo! have signed a pact with the Chinese government that "encourages" the big name web players to record the identities of bloggers and censor content. So says Reporters Without Borders, an organization that fights for journalistic rights across the globe.
The French advocacy group reports that at least 20 blogging services, including Yahoo!.cn and MSN.cn, have agreed to the new "self-discipline pact" laid down by the Internet Society of China, a spin-off from the Information Industry Ministry. Under the pact, the services are encouraged to store the real names and contact details of Chinese bloggers and delete "illegal and bad" information from user comments.
The pact doesn't require the services to register bloggers under their real names, as was previously proposed, but Reporters Without Borders is adamant that the agreement will significantly undermine free speech. "This decision will have grave consequences for the Chinese blogosphere and marks the end of anonymous blogging," the organization said. "A new wave of censorship and repression seems imminent."
The worry is that the government will now have the power to finger Chinese bloggers and punish them for material it doesn't approve of. "The Chinese government has yet again forced Internet sector companies to cooperate on sensitive issues - in this case, blogger registration and blog content," Reporters Without Borders said. "As they already did with website hosting services, the authorities have given themselves the means to identify those posting 'subversive' content by imposing a self-discipline pact."
This is a particularly sensitive issue for Yahoo! The company is facing a US lawsuit over journalist Shi Tao, who was jailed after the company delivered information about his web doings to the Chinese government, and the case has sparked an investigation in the US Senate, following claims that Yahoo! tried to cover-up its involvement in the jailing.
When we asked Yahoo! about its new pact with the Internet Society of China, it referred us to a company called Alibaba, which "manages" Yahoo!'s China arm. We contacted Alibaba as well, but the company didn't immediately respond.
Initially, we didn't hear back from Microsoft either, but the company told The Los Angeles Times that it would not ask bloggers to reveal their identities. "The document makes some recommendations that Microsoft does not support," said Adam Sohn, director of Microsoft's online services group. "We will not implement real-name registration for blogging in our Windows Live Spaces service." Which makes you wonder why the company has agreed to sign the pact.
Eventually, Microsoft did get back to us, and though they couldn't grant us an interview, they were much more forthcoming than Yahoo! When we asked it the company had indeed signed the pact and what effect it would have on policies, this was its response:
On August 21, MSN China, a joint venture between Microsoft and Shanghai Alliance Investment, Ltd., did sign - along with the other major Internet Service Providers in China - a self-regulatory code of conduct regarding blog services, sponsored by the Internet Society of China. Such self-regulatory codes are an effective means of helping to protect our customers from cybercrimes and other threats to online security and privacy, and to promoting a safe, friendly environment in which to enjoy our services.
The principles expressed by the ISC document are broadly in line with what other countries and industry groups have adopted in such self-regulatory codes, including commitments to promote online safety and to prevent misuse of services. While the self-regulatory code does make some recommendations that Microsoft does not support, it should be emphasized that these are indeed recommendations only, and we retain discretion to determine how to best achieve the overarching goals of the agreement. In particular, we do not plan to implement real-name registration for blogging in our Windows Live Spaces service in China.
Microsoft believes the Internet should be fostered and protected as a worldwide vehicle for reliable information and communications, personal expression, innovation and economic development. We therefore believe that, around the world, government actions taken to address security, safety, or other concerns, and which impact free expression and privacy, should be taken with deliberation and restraint.
Microsoft also supports international dialogue and bilateral consultations to promote the consistency of national actions and to maximize the openness, security and reliability of the Internet platform, including the development of a clear set of principles that should guide global Internet companies providing services around the world. To this end, Microsoft has joined with a diverse group of companies, academics, investors, technology leaders and human rights organizations to seek solutions to the free expression and privacy challenges faced by technology and communications companies doing business internationally. This effort aims to produce guiding principles, methods for governance and accountability, and to create a forum for collective action and shared learning on free expression and privacy matters.
So there you have it. The company does not plan on registering bloggers with their real names and contact details. Of course, at least 19 other web services have also signed the pact. ®