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Searching For Conscience In The Tech Industry

It's not every day that an employee publicly condemns his company as a tool of state-sponsored thuggery and gets to remain employed.
It's not every day that an employee publicly condemns his company as a tool of state-sponsored thuggery and gets to remain employed.

On Tuesday morning, Robert Scoble, technical evangelist at Microsoft and the company's most noted blogger, weighed in about a report posted by blogger and former CNN reporter Rebecca MacKinnon that MSN Spaces on New Year's Eve shut down a blog written by Zhao Jing, aka Michael Anti, a blogger apparently not well loved by Chinese authorities.

"It's one thing to pull a list of words out of blogs using an algorithm," Scoble wrote. "It's another thing to become an agent of a government and censor an entire blogger's work. Yes, I know the consequences. Yes, there are thousands of jobs at stake. Billions of dollars. But, the behavior of my company in this instance is not right."The issue here is that MSN, rather than the Chinese government, apparently censored content determined to be objectionable to the Chinese government.

The details are rather murky. MacKinnon suggests that a rival blogging service may have forced MSN's hand by reporting them to the police. "It's actually not uncommon in China for people in one company to actively 'tattle' on their rivals and get them into political trouble in order to gain a competitive business advantage," she wrote.

But even if the specifics of this incident remain unclear, it's evident that Internet companies, despite their mastery of search technology, can't find their consciences.

In a recent blog post, European Union Commissioner for Institutional Relations and Communication Margot Wallstrom took Microsoft to task for agreeing "to block Chinese blog entries that use words like 'democracy,' 'freedom,' 'human rights' and 'demonstration.' "

She continues, "It seems like Microsoft is not alone in 'bad company.' Google has agreed to exclude publications that the Chinese government finds objectionable. And Yahoo has even gone further. They collaborated with the Chinese government and gave up the name of a writer who sent an E-mail that commented on a party decision. Based on this information, the man received a 10-year prison sentence."

Last September, Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, castigated Internet companies for their betrayal of democratic values. "There have been great claims by Internet companies and enthusiasts that the Internet would be an unstoppable tool for free expression and the spread of democracy," he said in a statement. "But when companies like Yahoo, Microsoft, and Google decide to put profits from their Chinese operations over the free exchange of information, they are helping to kill that dream."

This is particularly disturbing in light of the conflict in Iraq. We have soliders dying in the Middle East, ostensibly to further the spread of democracy. Meanwhile, a bit farther east in Asia, tech companies readily dispense with democracy to gain market share.

The standard refrain -- "we have to comply with local laws" -- doesn't hold water. Every repressive regime has laws. But not all laws are just.

Google proclaims, "You can make money without doing evil."

Here's a challenge to Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and the rest the tech industry: Prove it.