Fear and Freedom on the Internet

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, 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’s 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 to 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.