I doubt Microsoft's hip red-headed advocate, Lauren, would be thrilled with Microsoft's decision to support Chinese censorship.  (Source: Microsoft)

Censorship does little to help with social problems and paves the way for government attacks on citizens.  (Source: Cameron Cardow)
Color me critical of Microsoft's support of silencing internet freedoms

I find myself surprised.  After applauding much of its recent work, I find one of Microsoft's crucial recent decisions alarming.

I've been very impressed with Microsoft of late in terms of its products.  Windows 7 is terrific and has been my primary operating system since last fall.  The Windows 7 Series phone OS looks great and I'm considering porting some of my iPhone titles I'm developing with my friend to it (my take on the platform's criticisms: the lack of copy and paste will soon be remedied and the multi-tasking support is disappointing, but forgivable, given the processing power Microsoft looks to be wielding).  And I can't help but be pleased with Microsoft efforts to finally support cutting edge internet standards with Internet Explorer 9.  Even the company's ads have improved (Laptop Hunters or I'm  a PC, anyone?).

Microsoft is carrying out a brilliant business campaign -- that much is for sure.  And earlier this month it made another smart business decision.  It voiced its support for Chinese internet censorship, with CEO Steve Ballmer vowing to stick it out in China even if Google leaves. 

This week tensions flared between Google and China and it looks like Google will indeed be walking away from its 31.3 percent stake in the Chinese search market.  That's over 100 million customers Google is likely to lose.  And Microsoft -- while it has virtually no search engine market share in China -- could snatch up much of that business with its new Bing search engine, both in the desktop and mobile sector.

In the short term, the move is a brilliant decision from a purely financial standpoint.  However, I feel it is a poor decision morally and will hurt Microsoft's business in the long run.

I thorough understand censorship is not always a black and white issue.  I can certainly understand why the U.S. government blocks certain materials like child pornography -- and why the Chinese government does so as well.  Ultimately, though, I think censorship is a poor tactic.  Trying to hide stuff from people will only make the situation worse. 

If content is blatantly illegal (i.e. terrorist materials or child pornography) the government should merely monitor it and prosecute those accessing or uploading it.  Of course you could accidentally access such content if it was uncensored, but there's ways to reasonably approach that as well.  One time might be an accident, but offenders are unlikely to just check out those sites once.

Censorship, on the other hand, actually decreases the chance to catch people participating in crime.  And it likely does little to dissuade people from criminal activity.  Further, it raises the probability that legitimate content will be blocked. 

Finally, by censoring materials a government opens a dangerous door.  As more materials, including legitimate ones get censored, the government gains the ability to arbitrarily prosecute its people -- particularly those who are critical of the political part in power.  Without a populist voice of reproach, abusive systems like dictatorships can easily arise.

Censorship is a slippery slope, one that the U.S. is struggling with today.  Our embrace of mild censorship has come at a cost.  One need only look to Texas's pending textbook reform that looks to virtually wipe founding father Thomas Jefferson from the history books to see that (the Texas school board considers Jefferson a dangerous radical for supporting separation of church and state).

However, China has long since fallen much farther down that slope.  Today a great deal of content is blocked in China, including legitimate adult entertainment, information on political and religious movements, and criticisms of the government.

There's an old saying "Freedom isn't free."

Google will certainly pay for defying China.  Business-wise it made a terrible decision in the short run.  In the long run, though, it may win as it is proving itself a moral leader and setting itself up for respect in the free market.   Microsoft has done the exact opposite -- made a wise short term decision, but compromised its morals.

For that reason I can't help by join Google President Sergey Brin in saying Microsoft, I'm very disappointed in you.

Update: Mar. 24, 2010 12:20 p.m.

I had a few additional comments and clarifications I would like to make on this topic.  First of all, as some readers accurately point out Google cooperates with censorship in other nations such as France, Thailand, and Turkey.  My point was never to say that Google is perfect or give a general analysis on Google on censorship.  Rather, I argue that in this particular case Google may the right decision and Microsoft made the wrong one.

Secondly, I'd like to state that I bear Microsoft no ill will.  I have a great deal of respect and appreciation for both it and Google's unique roles in the technology industry. I still think it made a poor decision though.

Thirdly, I'd like to address some justifications of the decision which I feel are inaccurate.  Some readers are commenting on the various recent China/Google pieces that Microsoft is just doing what it has to do business.  Perhaps, but by cooperating I would argue it is supporting Chinese censorship. 

Next, some argue that other companies that contract China for parts or the American public, which buys Chinese goods is equally liable.  This is very inaccurate, in my opinion. 

Parts manufacturers are at best marginally associated with Chinese censorship (perhaps via the fact that they pay taxes).  However, working with Chinese manufacturers is dramatically different from working with China to censor information in the form of internet searches.  Microsoft's actions are an example of direct participation in censorship.  I would never begrudge Microsoft's Zune for using Chinese parts, but directly participating in censorship is a poor strategy.

Lastly, some raised the question of what I meant by "morality" or expressed surprise at my use of the word "moral".  When I say morality, I expressly mean a logic-based morality, not an emotional one, as a many people do who use the word.  Freedom of information is good for society in most cases from what we've seen thus far and has been an important contributor to America's greatness.  Morality should be guided by logic and common sense.  And censorship is highly illogical.

"We basically took a look at this situation and said, this is bullshit." -- Newegg Chief Legal Officer Lee Cheng's take on patent troll Soverain

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