Free Speech Still Matters

By eWEEK Editorial Board  |  Posted 2005-06-27

The decision by Microsofts Chinese Internet portal to filter words such as "Freedom" and "Democracy" from its search engine, returning error messages about forbidden speech instead, has stirred up a mini-tempest on certain Web sites and blogs.

The decision of MSN China, a joint venture between a city-owned Shanghai investment company and MSN called Shanghai MSN Network Communications Technology, was apparently in response to a request from Chinese government censors.

China and the United States, despite maintaining different political systems, are in a long period of economic engagement. It is hoped and expected that the thousands upon thousands of economic relationships between the countries will lead to greater prosperity for both nations. Many Americans hope that these relationships, despite Chinese government policies and rhetoric, will eventually lead to greater personal and political freedoms for Chinese citizens.

China has come very far from the days of the Communist Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Not only is China far freer than it once was, it is also a global economic power. Now, with our nations economies so intertwined, instability in one country would greatly affect the other.

Although acquiescing to censorship might seem to promote stability and, therefore, mutual prosperity, experience has shown that doesnt always follow. Countries that have political as well as economic freedom tend to be more stable in the long run than those that do not.

No democracy is perfect, including that of the United States, but there comes a time to take a stand in defense of freedom of speech. We agree with Rebecca MacKinnon—a former CNN reporter in China, a former fellow at Harvard Universitys Kennedy School of Government and a current fellow at Harvard Law School—that theres a difference between telling China what it should do and making decisions about what we, as Americans and American companies, should do.

Although MSN China is a joint venture, and therefore some compromise by the two parties might be expected, we ask: Shouldnt MSN as a partner be speaking up more loudly for what should be important to it as a publishing entity?

As joint ventures proliferate in China and elsewhere, moral questions will continue to emerge. To be sure, its difficult to define sharp boundaries between good and evil when it comes to technology. Perhaps more than any other genre of technology, IT is notoriously difficult to constrain to only morally sanctioned use.

Its one thing, though, to sell a product that can be used in many ways; its another to participate in the application of policies that violate, for example, Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

We believe now is a good time to review that article and what it calls for: "freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

What do you think? Tell us at

Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, views and analysis of technologys impact on government and politics.

Rocket Fuel