Blogging, Microsoft and China

Glenn Reynolds has this. Please read the post he links to.

Here’ my two cents.

Lenin was right about a lot of things. And he was particularly right when he said that the Capitalist will always sell you the rope to hang him with.

Libertarians, perhaps dreaming of Dagney Taggart and Hank Reardon, often mistakenly think that the business community will care, at all, about freedom. Business people rarely do. They can’t. They are compelled by competitive pressure to care about profit, and to sell anything to anybody if they can get away with it. Because if they don’t their competitors will. People respond to incentives.

Microsoft is helping to build an Orwellian surveillance system for tyrants just because the tyrants will pay them to do so.

This should not surprise us. It would take moral courage to say no to the money, and answer to the shareholders for the lost money, and to suffer the ire of the communists in Beijing and all the lost business that would result from that ire. Courage is uncommon.

People who care about freedom need to be vigilant about the behavior of the government. But we also need to look with a hard and cynical eye at the behavior of private businesses. We should, to the extent possible, punish them when they behave as Microsoft is doing, by denying them business so they have an incentive not to become vendors to fascists, not to facilitate the crushing of freedom because it will be profitable, today, to do so

Suggestions on how to punish Microsoft for this contemptible behavior would be appreciated. Legislation punishing American companies from doing such work might be appropriate. Or setting up a fund to find ways to hack around the communist firewalls, then circulating it, in Chinese. But I have zero tech knowledge. Others will have better ideas than I do.

26 thoughts on “Blogging, Microsoft and China”

  1. Ok, I’m disgusted by Microsoft’s complicity and all, but how funny is this?

    Relying on the stability and effectiveness of a _Microsoft_ product for your jackboot censoring? You’ll have anarchy and revolution within a year!

    “Failure is not an option. It comes bundled with every Microsoft product.”

  2. Microsoft is a creature of the government and operates at its pleasure.

    The supreme irony is that China is the world’s champion violator of the intellectual property rights on which Microsoft is so dependent and there’s little or no propect of China doing much about the software (and other intellectual property) piracy there other than telling us they’ll do their best, showing us charts and graphs on what a poor country they are, and holding a show trial or two.

  3. “Microsoft is a creature of the government and operates at its pleasure.”

    Then the leverage is there to jam them in the eye for this behavior. Details, please.

  4. I use a Mac and shun Microsoft products whenever possible but that has nothing to do politics. If you want to poke at them on a personal level getting a Mac and then informing them why you made the jump would at least “make a statement,” as the kids say.

    Corporate officers can legally and morally make decisions adverse to the bottom line if the stockholders so authorize so I think the best strategy would be to try to prompt a stockholder revolt to force Microsoft’s management to change the policy.

    I don’t think the US government has any real leverage over MS in this matter and I think trying to give them some would cause more harm than good in the long run.

    Frankly, though, I think that the long term benefits of increased computerization in China will outweigh any short term harm caused by attempts to regulate the internet. If it comes down to a choice between a ineptly censored internet versus decreased computerization then I say let Microsoft play the game.

    Capitalist may be willing to sell the rope the Communist will use to hang them with but Communist have proven that they will buy the rope that their peoples eventually use to hang them with. Trade is two-way steet. When the Communist stare into the Capitalist abyss the Capitalist abyss is staring back.

  5. Microsoft’s behavior is akin to weapons manufacturers selling to enemy or rogue nations. Many US companies have been complicit thusly. US customers can punish MS by moving towards Linux and Apple if they so desire, and well they should. The use of non-MS software whenever possible is an option for the rest. At a minimum, blogging to embarrass MS and Gates is wise.

    But when the Chinese government uses Microsoft software to increase their ability to tyrannize the population, they may be buying the rope to hang themselves with. Indeed, by choosing software and devices known for being hacked, they risk permitting more clandestine behavior, and encouraging it by clamping down.

    Sure, coerced conformity will be easier at first, but smarter souls will slip these bonds. China is experiencing the same end had by prior socialist attempts at utopia. Like the Soviets, they have lost the taste for murdering by the millions. Coercion must come from lesser means, and in this lay the seeds of their demise. Microsft’s assistance here, while deplorable, will yield little for the Chinese officials, and may instead speed their decline.

    Let a thousand flowers bloom, eh?

  6. Dave,

    I suspect that one of MSFT’s goals is to buy Chinese govt cooperation against software pirates. Or maybe MSFT figures that since people in China are going to use MSFT products anyway, MSFT may as well get a piece of the action. Or both.

    Otherwise I agree with Shannon.

  7. I agree with Shannon. It is Microsoft, or whichever corporate shell that follows in its steps, that will have the last laugh.

    Technology, and IT in particular, is the Trojan Horse of a free society. Embedded in Microsoft’s operating system is the way a free society thinks, and its use will shape the way the Chinese will think in future. We should not be afraid of making a buck selling them this beast regardless of how the communist client wishes to paint it superficially. It is our strongest weapon, trumping all the nukes in the US military.

    Lex’s concern is Orwellian in nature — technology strengthening the hand of Big Brother. History has proven otherwise.

  8. Well, we’ll see. The PRC seems to have done quite a good job of keeping the lid on their Internet, and the spaniel-like willingness of US companies to collaborate in this does not help. I’m an IT guy by trade, and I have none of the faith in the liberating power of technology that other commenters do. China has been totalitarian for millenia, and I wager that it will be totalitarian for a few more.

  9. I am always wary of instituting a government program to solve a business/personal problem. In limiting the ability of microsoft to market their product globally, a precedent is set that will allow the government to control import/export based on the whim of politics. Never a good solution. Internationally, this may be viewed as another way in which the American Empire can control the world. From an economic standpoint, it will globally limit the free market that has been the foundation of our success nationally.

  10. “Lex’s concern is Orwellian in nature — technology strengthening the hand of Big Brother. History has proven otherwise.”

    I don’t think it has proven anything of the sort. We are at the dawn of the age of surveillance technology. Some technology empowers the state, others weaken it. I don’t think there is any general historical rule one way or the other. Also, there is the question of whether the State has the willpower to use the technology ruthlessly or not. China’s leadership leaves no doubt on that score.

    “…though, I think that the long term benefits of increased computerization in China will outweigh any short term harm …” So it is OK for Microsoft to profit from helping the Chinese government crush free speech, since all will come around OK in the end? I’ll just assert it again, without any gloves on, it is immoral to cooperate with a government which is doing these things. What would we think if Bell had been helping the KGB wiretap phones during the Cold War? More phones will lead to more freedom, and plus the Russians are violating their patents, so this will be good for everybody? No.

    I think you are all utopian about some necessary connection between technology and greater freedom. I don’t believe in it. Technology is neutral. It is a tool. It can be used for liberation or oppression, depending on who is controlling it. The Chinese government is building a system it can control, and use to monitor its people, with Microsoft’s assistance. Good for the Communist leadership, and Microsoft’s shareholders, and not for anyone else.

  11. All I have to say is, the Great Wall didn’t keep the Mongolians out (or the Chinese in) over the long term. And, my friends, Microsoft is not the highest quality purveyor of network security products.

  12. Some technology is neutral. Weapons, for example, which have marginal utility in civil society but are critical for governments, especially oppressive ones.

    But computers and info-tech? Those kinds of things confer such huge productivity improvements in business, entertainment and personal life that talented people flock to them. Govt functionaries may be good with guns, but they have neither the incentive nor the ability to compete with the geeks of the private sector, who anyway far outnumber the functionaries. (And of course, WRT tech development any country’s private sector really includes the rest of the world.) By the time the bureaucracies master a new technology the geeks are ahead of them — govt cannot get inside the private sector’s OODA loop.

    IMO there is more reason for optimism than pessimism here.

  13. Lex – I am really surprised by this “wall” mentality that your postings show. While the rest of the world feels besieged by American values, you are trying to wall everything (immigrants, technology). Sometimes I wonder whether you really understand how powerful forces generated from the US are … it is the Chinese (and Mexican) leadership who should be walling themselves rather than us. With these “walls” you are strengthening the very hand of the people that you rightfully consider immoral.

    With all due respect, I think Reagan was right and Orwell was wrong regarding the social impact of technology.

  14. I don’t think an American company, or any private business, should be helping the Chinese equivalent of the KGB do its job of suppressing its people. This is not evidence of a “wall mentality” it is opposition to tyrannical government or anyone who profits by helping their police oppress the people who live there. I think this action is wrong, whatever we all speculate the ultimate consequences will be. This action is wrong even if everything the rest of you say is right about somehow this technology will lead to more freedom over there.

    Sulaiman, as to Mexico, will you please either read the post or stop misrepresenting what I said? You don’t need to do two-bit psychology on me. I said that I want the law enforced. That is what I said, and what I meant, and there was no symbolism in it. A wall is a means. That is no more a wall mentality than putting a lock on my front door or requiring a key card to get into my law firm. I want legal immigration only. If the way to obtain control over who gets in here legally is a wall, build it. Walls are a tried and true way to mark and enforce borders. Like all my neighbors, my house has a fence around the yard. Does this evidence a “fence mentality”? No, it means, “that side is yours, this side is mine; do what you want there, I’ll do what I want here”. If some other means will work to secure our borders, I don’t care, use them. The current system is not working. It is a system of tolerated illegality, which benefits certain interest groups. Change the law or enforce it, but the status quo is not acceptable. The citizens of the United States, through their government, have a right to expect that the laws governing who lives here and who can come in here will be enforced. The Government is failing to do this. Here is a prediction. The next presidential election will in large part turn on this question. If the major parties refuse to touch it, there will be a third party challenge, just watch. This issue is long past due for resolution.

    This Microsoft business has has nothing to do with “walling off” technology, either. It is about pointing out that capitalists who profit by selling the tools of oppression to tyrants are complicit in that tyranny.

    As to Orwell and Reagan, I think they would both have had little use for some business helping the KGB identify people who use words like “freedom” in their mail so that they could more closely supervised, so the communist could keep better control of their population. Both men would have condemned it.

  15. Lex has good reason to be distrustful of relying on the liberating aspect of technology. Geeks may stay a step ahead, but the ability of government to grow and seek power is awesome and cancerous. One ignores or underestimates its capacity for domination at one’s own peril.

    While I’ll be cheering on the cyber-rebels, I’ll also remain vigilant in our little e-USA sector, mindful of its childlike need to say “mine” about everything it sees. This is not unlike the arguments opposing any infringement on the right to bear arms, in my view.

  16. Lex – A wall among neighbors who live under a legitimate political structure that enforces property rights makes perfect sense. Extending this analogy to walling a country is pure fantasy. No wall, The Great Wall of China or Maginot Line, has ever worked against greater forces of history.

    MSFT is not exactly helping Chinese government suppress its people — this whole thing sounds a little bit too much out of “Soldier of Fortune”. And the wall that the Chinese government is trying to impose on modern day form of human interaction is equally bound to fail.

  17. Sulaiman, thanks. We have narrowed the issues. I don’t know what it would mean for a wall to work against the “greater forces of history”, so I will concede that this is not possible.

    As to using a wall to control movement between contiguous territories, they work fine. The Israeli wall works well. The wall along the US Mexico border near San Diego, not yet completed, appears to be working well. (Maginot line did work, actually, the Germans just went around it.)

    Opposing the forces of history, whatever they may be, is not something I want to do. I just want to secure the rule of law in the United States, by limiting immigration and trade to those people who comply with our laws. By securing our borders we preserve the rule of law, defend our public health and national security and enhance law enforcement. All of this is fully compatible with high levels of LEGAL immigration and trade. In fact, the long term consequences of the current situation would be a backlash against all immigration and trade, and that is exactly what I want to avoid.

    “MSFT is not exactly helping Chinese government suppress its people…” The article linked by Instapundit led to this. I will put it to you that Microsoft is doing precisely that, helping the Chinese government suppress its people by denying them free speech, by stripping away from them the use of certain words. We have been throwing George Orwell’s name around, but this is truly Orwellian, in the strict sense — he wrote about this very thing. In 1984 the Party created Newspeak so that words would be taken out of the language so that people would not be able to commit thoughtcrime. If you do not have the word “democracy”, or if you cannot use it on the Internet, then you cannot challenge the party. No doubt people will use code words. But, why should they have to? And why should Microsoft help the Party create a situation where they have to?

    I have no idea what any of this has to do with Soldier of Fortune magazine.

  18. Let me second Shannon’s suggestion about giving MS the finger and buying Mac. You can stick it to Mr. Bill and his Chicom buds, and get a much better OS at the same time. Win-win proposition here.

    Or at the least, switch to Linux.

  19. While I consider Microsoft are contemptible in this matter, the whole exercise seems doomed anyway. My understanding is that MS are enabling the Chinese to block words like “democracy”, “human rights” &c. Will that work? It doesn’t seem to lessen the flood of spam. Spammers just use a variety of garbled spellings to bypass filters. Won’t this also happen with the Chinese sites? I think, or hope, that the Chinese Communist Party are about to be hit by a bloody big express train with “Freedom of Information” plastered all over it. Either that or they are going to need to employ half their population watching the other half. If they want superpower status can they really afford to squander their resources in that manner. They are on the horns of an exquisitely uncomfortable dilemma of their own making.

  20. Lex – I like your observation:

    “Maginot line did work, actually, the Germans just went around it.”

    So, you don’t think people would go around the Mexican and MSFT walls?

    Immigration — as long as there are Americans willing to hire these guys at a cost greater than what they earn at home (including what economists call “psychic” cost), they will keep coming regardless of the kind of laws we have on books. If man-made law is not in accordance with natural law, the former will be impossible to be enforced. Economists have been shouting this for decades, but somehow lawyers don’t get it.

  21. It will never be possible to end all illegal immigration, but I am not asking for perfection. Some people would still get in. We have illegal immigrants come in from China in ship containers, for example. Still, the volume of illegal immigration could be very significantly cut by closing off the land route and policing it better, with a wall or other means.

    As to people working around the Chinese government, I do not have the tech knowledge to say one way or the other. And it doesn’t matter to me, anyway. I know the Chinese government is willing to spend large sums of money to do surveillance of its people and try to prevent any anti-regime speech from happening. The Chinese communist leadership does not believe these efforts are futile. I have no basis to think they are wrong. Microsoft will do what it can to help them, for a price, and they apparently believe their efforts will be effective.

    But that is not my point. Any company which assists a tyrant regime to go about suppressing its people is complicit in it, and Microsoft is contemptible for participating in it, even if it ends up, despite all their effort, being unsuccessful

  22. I hope Microsoft gives their surveillance software a cute name, like “Mao v2.0” or even “Fan Shen” (the underlying term describing the Chinese Communist Revolution). “Gulag” would have been ideal, but it has lost its cache, thanks to Amnesty Inernational, however.

  23. Maybe they’re selling the Chinese something that is deliberately designed not to work properly. If they’re pulling a Doctor Emmett Brown (they sent me the plutonium, and I sent them a bomb casing full of used pinball machine parts!), my respect for them will go up several notches.

    But we won’t know for quite a while…

  24. As I posted on my own blog:-
    As I have mentioned before, I read online newspapers, but one of my all-time favourites is the AlJazeera website pages for the satellite station of the same name. Now here is a broadcasting outfit which is totally controlled by people who have very close ties to various Arabic governments in the Middle East, none of which are democratic in any respect, as far as Western eyes go at least, and while refraining from any criticism of their own mob, take an unholy delight in wide coverage of anything which might be described as embarrassing about a Western-oriented country!

    So you can imagine their delight and word count when it was disclosed that Microsoft is aiding the Chinese Government in it’s relentless pursuit of any Chinese citizen who dares to gain access to ‘Freedom of Speech’ by means of a ‘blog’, such as this one, by helping to identify and locate any ‘blogger’ who dares to use the terms “Democracy, Freedom” or “Human rights”.

    Microsoft were contacted for comment by Aljazeera, but out came the usual anodyne claptrap about any access is good access, and with the comment from a Microsoft spokesman; “Even with the filters, we’re helping millions of people communicate, share stories, share photographs and build relationships. For us, that is the key point here.” So, from a Corporation which, in it’s adverts, uses the terms “Start something” with an expressed hope that the Windows user will use that software’s ability to explore the thousands of applications available; comes the news that they are also happy to co-operate with a dictatorship who either cannot or will not allow one of the basic freedoms to invade it’s territory! They must be very insecure in Beijing, if they can’t stand a little criticism from either inside or out, and Microsoft ought to be ashamed of itself for a stance such as this!

  25. MSFT are not the first big Western firm to help the CCP build the Great Firewall. Cisco has I think profited the most from helping them up till now, and you can’t use the internet at ALL without indirectly using lots and lots of Cisco products (most routers!)

    The CCP now require blogs to be registered. Minnesota the other day effectively banned PGP or other encryption software as showing ‘intent to traffic in kiddie porn’. That’ll be the next step in China, banning encryption such as SSL for all but commercial sites registered to do business there. Wait for it.

    I now consider Minnesota the ‘least free’ of the 50 States. The Richard Stallman piece The Right to Read, in which all non-encrypted traffic is banned in a future anti-utopia, is not such a flight of fantasy anymore.

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