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Microsoft reworks standards on blogs
Seattle Times technology reporter
Amid growing concerns that U.S. Internet companies are bowing to foreign censors, Microsoft announced a set of policies Tuesday aimed at better protecting blogs and other online content from government restrictions.
It remains to be seen whether the company's new approach will enable more free speech in countries such as China, but one expert in online rights said it appears to be a promising first step for Microsoft and the industry.
Microsoft also called on other companies to follow suit. It suggested that other Internet companies and governments collaborate on industrywide principles for handling situations that arise as blogging and other forms of online communication spread to restrictive countries that don't embrace the Web's freedom.
"We believe we have a set of principles that ensure we comply with all of our legal obligations in China and other countries and ensure we are consistent with the broad principles that the Internet creates and people's desire for free expression," Brad Smith, the company's general counsel, said by phone from Portugal, where he announced the program at a Microsoft conference for government leaders.
Smith announced four principles:
• Microsoft won't remove or block Web content unless it receives a "legally binding" notice from a government saying that the material violates local laws.
• If Microsoft is ordered to block content in one country, Microsoft will continue to make that content available to users elsewhere.
• If content is removed or blocked, Microsoft will notify users that their access was limited as a result of government restriction.
• Microsoft will work with other companies and governments to develop principles "that can guide our industry in comprehensive way."
The policies apply to Microsoft's MSN Spaces blog-hosting service. Smith said Microsoft is still considering how to apply similar principles to other services, such as MSN Search.
Last month Microsoft shut down the site of a Chinese blogger who discussed sensitive topics such as China's relations with Taiwan and a newspaper strike, according to an Associated Press report.
Google was also criticized last week after its new China site was found to censor terms such as "democracy" and "human rights."
Last year Yahoo! drew fire from humanitarian groups for giving the Chinese government e-mail account information about journalist Shi Tao, who was jailed for 10 years on charges of revealing state secrets, the AP reported.
It's unclear how extensively blogs are being censored, but there's a continuing risk because Internet companies are so eager to enter the Chinese market, said Cindy Cohn, legal director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that deals with online freedoms.
"It makes sense for all of these companies to sit down and think about this — they have not given it sufficient thought until now," Cohn said. "It's unfortunate that some horrible things had to happen for them to think about it."
Representatives of Google had no immediate comment, while Yahoo! declined comment.
Cohn said she's excited to see Microsoft present its principles and hopes others follow suit. But she's also concerned about the details, such as the type of "legally binding" request that Microsoft will accept to block a Web site.
Smith said the legal issues are fairly new, and Microsoft is responding to feedback from people inside and outside the company. He noted that 15 million people are using MSN Spaces to create blogs, including 3 million in China.
"Those 3 million blogs in China in turn are read by 15 million users in China, but today we've only seen this arise very recently," he said. "What we're striving to do is create a set of principles that we can apply proactively so we can hopefully get a bit ahead of the legal [issues] that may arise."
Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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