Microsoft Spells Out Government Relations

Microsoft laid out a policy for dealing with government orders relating to user-generated content published on MSN Spaces.

Microsoft Senior Vice President and General Counsel Brad Smith outlined the policy on Tuesday, during the Government Leaders Forum in Lisbon, Portugal.

He said that, in the future, Microsoft will remove access to blog content only when it receives a legally binding notice from the government indicating that the material violates local laws, or if the content violates MSN’s terms of use.

Microsoft is smarting from criticism for shutting down the Spaces pages of Zhao Jing, also known as Michael Anti, at the request of the Chinese government, after he supported striking Chinese journalists

Under the new policy, Microsoft will remove access to content only in the country issuing the order. When blog content is blocked due to restrictions based on local laws, the rest of the world will continue to have access.

Evidently, this wasn’t technically possible when Microsoft took down Zhao’s blog in December 2005; Microsoft said this was a new capability it was implementing in the MSN Spaces infrastructure.

When local laws require the company to block access to certain content, Microsoft will ensure that users know why that content was blocked, by notifying them that access has been limited due to a government restriction.

This move came after Google took heat for agreeing to censor the searchable index presented to users of its localized search service for China. Google said it would alert users that some sites had been blocked; but tests done by bloggers and journalists found that notice wasn’t consistent.

Smith said that Microsoft believes that it is better for customers if Microsoft is present in global markets with these tools and services, even in restrictive markets, than not offering the services at all. He also said there remains a need for clear principles to guide new technology and policy decisions.

He called for a dialogue between the industry, governments and advocacy groups to create a set of principles to guide Internet companies providing services around the world.

Microsoft said there are more than 35 million MSN Spaces and over 90 million unique users each month.

Government relations have been a thorny issue for search providers of late.

Last week, privacy advocates were horrified to learn that AOL, MSN and Yahoo had given the U.S. Department of Justice aggregated information about search queries, while Google had refused to give any information. MSN said it hadn’t delivered anything that could be linked to individual users.

Then, following Google’s censorship announcement, the Congressional Human Rights Caucus called a hearing to discuss whether tech companies are rolling over human rights in their eagerness for foreign profits. The caucus invited Yahoo, Microsoft, Google and Cisco Systems.

All four declined the invitation.

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