The week in technology: Msoft enshrines blogging code

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There was no let up in the debate triggered by Google’s decision to censor its new Chinese website last week, especially when Microsoft decided to revise its blogging policy.

The Google move sparked a wave of outrage from the blogosphere. But as well as the cries to boycott Google products and to divest Google stock (adding to the company’s woes as it disappointed investors with another quarter of huge profits - though not as huge as markets would have liked), the criticism also spread to other internet companies such as Microsoft and Yahoo who had already been accused of capitulating to the restrictive demands of the Chinese state by removing sensitive blogs and censoring searches.

In response to the criticism, Microsoft said it would move towards a more transparent regulation of content on its MSN Spaces blog-hosting service, which stirred up anti-Microsoft feeling two weeks ago after deleting the Spaces blog of Michael Anti, written by outspoken Chinese journalist Zhao Jing.

On Tuesday, Brad Smith, Microsoft’s general counsel, laid out four principles it would adhere to including only removing a blog after a “proper legal notice” order from a government, restricting access to the blog only in that country and informing users why the content had been restricted.

Mr Smith also committed Microsoft to work with other companies and governments to work out principles “that can guide our industry in comprehensive way”. This reflected a similar statement from Google which called on the US government to take a more active role in promoting freedom in the Communist country.

However, a day later both countries declined invitations to attend a Congressional meeting to discuss the issue, an irony not lost on bloggers.

Robert Scoble, Microsoft’s “chief blogging officer” described the new policy as a “great first step”.

Matt Whipp, writing on PC Pro, said Microsoft had gone further than other companies in resisting China’s policies, as its policy would put the onus on the Chinese government to ferret out dissenting content as opposed to Google, which in return for doing business in China currently has to guess what content might offend authorites and then offer it up for monitoring by government agencies.

Rebecca MacKinnon, a prominent blogger, welcomed Microsoft’s move for making “some laudable steps toward greater accountability, transparency and respect for the user”.

But she added that many questions remained answered about how the Microsoft’s policy would work in practice. She wondered what would constitute a “proper legal notice”, whether bloggers would be given a chance to remove offending content themselves and whether Chinese readers would be informed of their government’s objection to a site and whether country.

She also worried whether abiding by country-wide laws would encourage censorship elsewhere.

“I’m also concerned about the implications of this more sophisticated country-specific blocking. Will this make it even easier for companies to justify complying with censorship around the globe because that censorship can be made more fine-grained and sophisticated? We need to think long and hard about this.”

Chris Matthews on blog.matthewstinson.net said the outrage over Google had given Microsoft an “undeserved breathing space”, allowing it to partially amend its ways following the Michael Anti scnadal.

“An English Technorati search has roughly 260 stories about Microsoft’s censorship, compared to thousands of posts on Google’s censorship. The shame in this is that what Microsoft did was far worse than what Google has done,” he said.

He added that Microsoft’s statement of blogging principles “addressed some of the concerns” but it remained to be seen whether US would be able to agree a common set of principles for doing business in China.

...and stands up for its own rights in Europe

Meanwhile, Microsoft was also feeling oppressed by the state this week, launching a scathing attack on the European Commission - accusing European competition regulators of seriously violating its right of defence.

Microsoft argued it had only been given access to 29 out of 100 documents relevant to the bitter antitrust case between the two parties - 25 of which were merely communications between the software group and the Commission, and added that regulators were breaking their own rules of procedure.

The company only has two weeks to comply with the original antitrust ruling or face a €2m a day fine.

One blogger was also standing up for Microsoft’s rights.

Microsoft has finally decided to stand up to the European Commission, which seems determined not to protect the free market but to make Microsoft suffer,” said Nathan Weinberg, on Inside Microsoft.

Legal tide turns towards RIM

BlackBerry users across the globe will be breathing more easily this week after a couple of patent judgements in favour of the portable emailer’s makers, Reseach in Motion.

The Canadian company received a favourable ruling from the US patent office that could help it to head off an injunction to suspend service in the US this month.

RIM also won an unrelated high court patent battle in the UK, strengthening its position in Europe following a similar court decision in Germany.

RIM has been fighting a suit since 2001 from US rival NTP which claims RIM has violated its patents on wireless “push” email technology. A Virginia jury sided with NTP in 2002, a decision which was reaffirmed by a federal appeals court.

But the US Patent and Trademark Office invalidated most of the NTP claims, and RIM now hopes to persuade the judge presiding over the case that there is enough evidence in their favour to lift a BlackBerry ban that comes into force on February 24.

Legal pad, the blog of Californian legal news site CalLaw.com, asked one patent litigator, Erik Puknys, about the outcome of the case.

I will not lose my BlackBerry - the parties will settle somewhere north of $500 million or the PTO will drive a stake through the patents. If I’m wrong, however, NTP’s going to have to pry my BlackBerry from my cold, dead hands,” he texted back on his endangered handset.

Despite describing the as case as “as boring as watching paint dry”, the Blue Blogging Soapbox said RIM was slowly winning the case and could benefit from the BlackBerry’s popularity in influential circles.

“It probably doesn’t hurt that about 2.2m of the 3.2m subscribers in the US are government related. Nobody’s willing to go without, in the short term.”

However, Rob on Zero to Rich feared government workers were going to be excluded from the injunction.

“What? If it’s the government judges that are deciding that Blackberry infringed on a patent and decide to shut it down, let them go and buy something else to use. Why should government still be allowed to use the patent infringing devices while no one else can?,” he fumed.

Baylen Linnekin was adamant that an exception shouldn’t be made for government workers.

“Oh boo-fucking-hoo! I won’t pretend to understand, be interested in, or have an opinion of the specifics of this BlackBerry case, but I do know that any shutdown in service should absolutely impact government workers in exactly the same way it might impact normal, productive, hard-working, intelligent, private citizens.”

Gizmo Watch offered plenty of alternative emailers if RIM failed to reverse the ban.

“You really don’t have to worry as there are plenty of other better options available,” it reassured, picking out the Palm Treo 700w, the Sony Ericsson P910a and the Samsung SCH-i730 among others.

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