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June 10, 2005 10:05 pm

Microsoft bans ‘democracy’ for China web users

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Microsoft's new Chinese internet portal has banned the words “democracy” and “freedom” from parts of its website in an apparent effort to avoid offending Beijing's political censors.

Users of the joint-venture portal, formally launched last month, have been blocked from using a range of potentially sensitive words to label personal websites they create using its free online blog service, MSN Spaces.

Attempts to input words in Chinese such as “democracy” prompted an error message from the site: “This item contains forbidden speech. Please delete the forbidden speech from this item.” Other phrases banned included the Chinese for “demonstration”, “democratic movement” and “Taiwan independence”.

It was possible to enter such words within blogs created using MSN Spaces, but the move to block them from the more visible section of the site highlights the willingness of some foreign internet companies to tailor their services to avoid upseting China's Communist government.

Beijing has long sought to limit political debate on the internet and is in the throes of a campaign to force anybody who operates a website to register with the central government.

MSN this year became the first big international internet service to win a licence to offer value-added telecoms services in China, a coup that was possible in part because of its decision to team up in a joint venture with Shanghai Alliance Investment (Sail). Sail is an investment arm of the Shanghai city government. Microsoft has also been careful to ensure that news and other content offered through the Chinese MSN portal are provided by local partners who can work within the informal and shifting boundaries set by China's unseen army of internet censors.

The MSN Spaces service, however, is directly operated by the joint venture, Shanghai MSN Network Communications Technology, in which Microsoft holds a 50 per cent stake.

MSN on Friday declined to comment directly on the ban on sensitive words, but its China joint venture said users of MSN Spaces were required to accept the service's code of conduct. “MSN abides by the laws and regulations of each country in which it operates,” the joint venture said. The MSN Spaces code of conduct forbids the posting of content that “violates any local and national laws”.

But while China's ruling Communist Party deals harshly with political dissenters, there is no Chinese law that bars the mere use of words such as democracy.

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