Earlier this month it was reported that at the request of China's rulers, Microsoft shut down the Web site of a Chinese blogger that was maintained on a Microsoft service called MSN Spaces. The blogger, Zhao Jing (趙京), had been reporting on a strike by journalists at the Beijing News that followed the dismissal of the newspaper's independent-minded editor.
Microsoft's action raises a key question: can the Internet really be a force for freedom that repressive governments cannot control as easily as newspapers, radio and television?
Ironically, Microsoft founder and chairman Bill Gates has been an enthusiastic advocate of this view. Just last October, he said: "There's really no way to, in a broad sense, repress information today, and I think that's a wonderful advance we can all feel good about ... [T]his is a medium of total openness and total freedom, and that's what makes it so special."
Despite these sentiments, Microsoft is helping the Chinese authorities repress information as best they can. A Microsoft spokeswoman was reported as saying that the corporation has blocked "many sites" in China, and it has been known for several months that Microsoft's blog tool in China filters words like "democracy" and "human rights" from blog titles.
Microsoft's defense is that it must "comply with local and global laws."
But the MSN Spaces sites are maintained on servers in the US. The relevant local laws would therefore seem to be those of the US, and Zhao Jing's discussion of the Beijing journalists' strike does not violate any of them.
Nor are there any global laws that prevent Chinese people from discussing events that their government would prefer them not to discuss. The New York Times, for example, is free to publish its report on the strike, even though it operates a Web site that anyone with unfettered Internet access can read. If the Chinese government does not want its citizens to read a foreign newspaper, then it is up to them to figure out how to block access to it. The newspaper is under no obligation to do it for them.
So Microsoft's defense misfires. We can only guess at the company's real reason for taking down the Web site, but fear of repercussions against its commercial interests in China seems likely to have been an important factor.
To be sure, a corporation can and should place limits on the use of its services. The absolutist line -- let complete freedom of expression prevail -- crumbles in the face of uncomfortable examples. According to Gates, Microsoft might prevent the use of its services to spread instructions about making nuclear bombs, to send pro-Nazi statements into Germany, where such material is illegal, and to propagate child pornography.
But how relevant are such examples?
In his classic defense of freedom of expression, On Liberty, John Stuart Mill argued that the most important reason for freedom of expression is to promote competition between the widest possible range of ideas, and that unfettered debate is the best way to test them. For the government to protect ideas from criticism is to turn them into a lifeless and rigid dogma, regardless of whether they are true.
If we agree with Mill, then only one of Gates' examples falls into the category of expression that should be protected. Recipes for making nuclear bombs are techniques, not ideas. Nor is child pornography the expression of ideas. We may therefore restrict both of them without running afoul of Mill's argument (on the other hand, an essay arguing that there is nothing wrong with adults taking a sexual interest in children, and that such conduct should be permitted, expresses ideas, and thus should not be censored, no matter how poisonous we may consider them).