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Et tu, Microsoft?


From left: Mephistopheles, the Devil; Bill Gates, Chairman of Microsoft; Steven A. Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft

In Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, when the Roman leader finds Marcus Junius Brutus, his right-hand man, among a group of senators who are seeking his life, he says, "Et tu, Brute?" (And even you, Brutus?) That's exactly how Chinese bloggers must have felt when Microsoft's MSN Online Division shut down a blog run by Zhao Jing, alias An Ti, hours before the turn of the year. Zhao worked for the Beijing Bureau of the New York Times as a research assistant, and recently stepped up his pro-democracy rhetoric to support the reporters at the Beijing News who had gone on strike in protest against the dismissal of a progressive editor.

According to the Beijing Bureau of Associated Press, Brooke Richardson, group-product manager at the Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond, Wash., said, "When we operate in markets around the world, we have to ensure that our [blog-hosting] service complies with global laws as well as local laws and norms." Richardson added that they shut down Zhao's blog for violating Microsoft's code of conduct which stipulates that users must be in compliance with laws in the country in which the user is based.


Last April at the height of the anti-Japanese rallies in major Chinese cities, the Japanese government asked China to crack down on these marchers, with which Beijing willingly complied. The tumult also triggered strikes at Chinese factories of some Japan-based companies such as Uniden, a midsize manufacturer of communications equipment. Although these strikes were staged to solve labor disputes, Tokyo lodged a protest and Beijing uncharacteristically complied, too. At that time it came as no surprise that Japan demanded China further reinforce its suppression of freedom of speech and assembly because people on both sides of the East China Sea knew that Japan's democracy had long been reduced to an empty promise.

In late-2004, IBM Corporation struck a deal with China's Lenovo Group in which its PC Division changed hands at a bargain price of US$ 1.75 billion. But this deal did not really shake us up either because the Big Blue had just taken a business decision based on the trade-off between pros and cons to be involved in jettisoning a not-so-profitable line of business.

But the Microsoft's decision this time was a totally different story. Basically it was a moral decision because business-wise, the software giant had nothing to fret about no matter whether it decided to cooperate with the Chinese authorities. Today's China, like any other nation in the world, has been hooked on the Windows Operating System and other Microsoft's products so much that it could no longer go on a single day without them. So even if it had refused to appease China's censors, the worst-case scenario it would have been prepared for was nothing more than a loss of blog-hosting and some other Web service business in the country, which was a peanut relative to the consolidated revenue of US$ 39.8 billion it posted in fiscal year 2005.

In short, Microsoft has now entered into a "pact with the Devil", like Goethe's Faust did with Mephistopheles, to sell off its soul for a peanut.

IBM Corporation in its prime was constantly challenged by the U.S. Justice Department for possible violations of the anti-trust law. The Big Blue lost some of these lawsuits, but the computer giant was always aware that it had to conduct itself not only as a law-abiding business but also as a corporate citizen fully committed to the highest moral standards and business ethics. Sometimes its credit checking department was scrutinizing not only the credit-worthiness of a prospective customer, but also its possible Mafia affiliation. But now Microsoft has destroyed overnight the good old tradition IBM and many other respectable companies in the U.S. built up over a long period of time. When an Islam terrorist group uses Windows to show the world a scene of beheading of the hostage, Bill Gates would say: "It's not us that takes hostages and beheads them in line with the 'local norms'. So, who cares, if they are our customers?"

Months before the shutdown of the dissident's site, Paris-based press freedom watchdog Reporters without Borders (RSF) became aware that Microsoft had changed its Web portal named MSN Spaces, coupled with proprietary blog tool, so any politically sensitive words, or combinations of words, would be automatically rejected. Wasting no time RSF started warning Microsoft to undo the China-particular add-on function. But the appeal went unanswered.

More specifically, the Microsoft's web service arm in China has blacklisted potentially subversive words such as:
Dalai Lama
democracy

Falungong
June 4
(the date of the Tiananmen Square massacre)
China + corruption
humanrights
.
(Incidentally, the blog tool I am using for TokyoFreePress, Geeklog, has been configured so it only refuses some filthy four-letter words, such as the one starting with an "FU".)

To make things worse, Microsoft's Web service competitors, Google and Yahoo, have taken similar steps to Beijing's satisfaction, despite the repeated warning by RSF. For instance, if you use a search-string including "Dalai Lama" on the China-based portal of search engine Google, the system will return a message that reads "Site cannot be found".

The lesson we have learned here is that the future of democracy, not only in China, but the rest of the world, all hinges on how we can emancipate ourselves from the dominance of this lousy nine-letter word starting with an "MI" or seven-letter word starting with a "WI". Fortunately, though, there are some decent alternatives around with which to replace Windows-based web service, such as the one based on MacOS, the proprietary platform of Apple Computer.

I believe that Microsoft has now chosen a track that surely leads to the ultimate downfall of the devil's empire by making its state-of-the-art censorship technology available to the Chinese authorities. At least if and when the "Great Firewall" crumbles, its presence in China will be gone forever. Let's be reminded that any empire is destined for a demise and once it has developed arrogance like Microsoft's, which is sooner or later unavoidable, the progess of decline will be irreversibly accelerated.
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