Microsoft, China, and Cultural Imperialism

Rebecca MacKinnon has a post on Microsoft’s removal of a blog, run by Michael Anti from their MSN Spaces blog site. (“Why Microsoft censorship in China matters to everybody.”) I’m finding the justifications and responses (both official and unofficial) to be fascinating and ultimately confusing.

Matt Marshall at SiliconBeat has “Microsoft and Bokee mired in Chinese free-speech controversy:”

As a multi-national business, Microsoft operates in countries around the world. Inline with Microsoft practices in global markets, MSN is committed to ensuring that products and services comply with global and local laws, norms, and industry practices. Most countries have laws and practices that require companies providing online services to make the internet safe for local users. Occasionally, as in China, local laws and practices require consideration of unique elements.

In a post titled “Running a Service in China,” Michael Connolly writes:

Through the “report abuse” link at the bottom of every space. If you see inappropriate content, such as pornography, or out-right illegal content, like hate-speech or child pornography, let us know and we’ll investigate the problem and take appropriate action. Our main filter we use is, is this blog adhering to our Code of Conduct?

Cyberspace People Watcher writes in a post (also titled) “Running a service in China:”

There are a lot of Chinese bloggers using MSN Spaces. That means there is a lot of speech still going on. That is a good thing. I believe that people in China can still read this blog. I think that is a good thing. Would the cause of freedom be aided by placing the Chinese government in a position where they felt they had to lock all MSN Spaces out of the country? I doubt it. If you think so please make the case. I would love to read it.

What I find most confusing here is the conflation of local law and local practice, along with MSN’s ‘code of conduct.’ They are three different things. If the benefit of having a US run service is that we bring some of our cultural ideas, like freedom of speech, to China, and the Chinese people benefit. We might also bring our distinctions between law, custom, and contract and show people how those work. That only works if we bring those ideas, not leave them at the border in a mis-placed respect for “local practices.” Those local practices are enforced by a government who throws people in jail, or runs them over with tanks, for non-compliance.

So, I’m confused, are you there to bring western, enlightenment ideas to the table or are you there to make money? Because the enlightenment was just shut off in a display of what counts.

Lastly, I’d like to respond directly to Cyberspace People Watcher’s question “Would the cause of freedom be aided by placing the Chinese government in a position where they felt they had to lock all MSN Spaces out of the country?” Yes, it would. If tens or hundreds of thousands of people were suddenly cut off from their blogs, they would start demanding answers and change. By cutting off a single blogger, you, MSN, make it easier for the repression to be missed or ignored. Cutting off thousands of blogs would make both our values and their apparent. I think making the contrast clear is worthwhile. We have values that are worth standing up for, and I wish Microsoft saw it that way.

Two Quick Notes

I’d like to remind everyone that Emergent Chaos now has three people posting, not just Adam. I see comments and links that assume I’m writing everything here, which is a little demeaning to Chris and Arthur.

Also, I’d like to remind people that I maintain bookmarks of things I find interesting, but don’t have a lot to add. Various readers told me that the interesting longer posts were getting buried by those. I shifted them to the sidebar, but the flow is sort of unnatural, and I haven’t figured out design that I think works. (I’ve tried putting a “ticker style” feed across the top, but it doesn’t look right.) Anyway, you can subscribe to an RSS feed which includes my quick comments.

[Update: Based on feedback from several folks, I’ve made the “posted by” bits at the top the same size as the post bodies so they’re easier to see.]

The Machinery of Repression

  • The New York Times reports on the completion of the first phase of the treat-visitors-like-criminals US-Visit system. The article is informative, and tells us:

    The fingerprint check at the borders has turned up just 970 hits of visa violators or criminal suspects. The total rises to about 15,000 with inclusion of the cases identified overseas at the time of an application for the visa, a process that is considered an extension of US-Visit because it too requires fingerprints and a digital photo. (“Border Control Takes One Leap Forward.”)

  • Newsday has a story on bad data from background checks, “Background Checks By Companies Spark Worries:

    “There are no standards for what is a background check,” said Tal Moise, chief executive of Verified Person, a New-York based company that performs background checks. “This is an industry that has delivered historically a very low-quality product.”

  • reports:

    Just over five per cent of the UK population is on the database, compared with one per cent in Austria – the second biggest user of the technology – and half a per cent in the US. (“World’s biggest DNA database gets larger“)

    Meanwhile, Larry Lessig reports on a sign on the Docklands light rail:

    Abuse, Assault, Arrest: Our staff are here to help you. Spitting on DLR staff is classified as an assault and is a criminal offence. Saliva Recovery Kits are now held on every train and will be used to identifty offenders against the national DNA database.

  • Bruce Schneier quotes the Register on “ID Cards and ID Fraud

    This “quasi-identity card… I think—had a converse effect to that which the Government sought… anybody who had such a card or driving licence on their person had a pass, which, if shown to police or soldiers, gave them free passage. So, it had precisely the opposite effect to that which was intended.”

  • In a welcome bit of clogging the wheels, the Australian Chamber of Commerce has come out against ID cards (again), “calling on the Government to ‘clearly show how such a measure would demonstrably improve Australia’s security arrangements.'” (Reported in “ID card ‘bad for business’.”)

Thoughts on Farris Hassan, the 'Iraq Teenager'

farris-hassan.jpgIf you haven’t read about Farris Hassan and his trip, take a minute to do so. He flew to Iraq to learn what was going on.

I’d like to start by congratulating the teachers at Pine Crest School. How often, today, are teachers so inspiring? The goal of school should be to develop both a deep thirst for knowledge, and the skills and techniques to obtain that knowledge. (I had many such great teachers. I even took classes with some of them.) The wisdom to assess strategies for learning must come from both the schools, and more importantly, the parents. Before I get to the parents, I’d like to mention the Pine Crest President’s message which says “On your journey, you will hear our youngest students being inquisitive, digging deeper than you would think possible…” Indeed.

Now, as to his parents, I’ll let them speak for themselves: “‘I’m going to hug him. He’s my little angel,’ his mother, Shatha Atiya, said Friday after learning he was on his way home.”

Security Stickers

Today I received a great add for a newish security company, Devicewall. They are yet another company providing a solution for prevention of intellectual property theft. They sent me a stack of humorous stickers saying things like: “This Computer is Protected by BRSD Technology. Big Red Sticker of Doom technology leverages our natural fear of strongly worded red stickers to provide maximum protection from internal data theft. It’s big. It’s red. Fear it.” I have no real interest in looking at the product at the moment, but I love the campaign.


Illicit, by Mosés Naím is a tragic book. It is considered, insightful, wide-ranging, deep, and so close to amazing. Had Naím gone just a little further, it could have been brilliant, and the tragedy is that he didn’t. Perhaps I should back up, and explain.

Naím is the editor of Foreign Policy. He has written a broad, accessible book about the rise of economic networks and specialties within those networks that carry a broad scope of illicit items around the globe. He shows how the same networks are carrying not only drugs, weapons and counterfeit products, but also people and money.

A key theme of the book is how networks shift and adjust in response to both market and regulatory pressures. He distinguishes modern business networks from stereotypes of organized crime on the basis of independence. That independence leads to fluidity. His discussion of how governments organize with each other to create pressure is good. His discussion of market demand, in contrast, is somewhat lacking. He discusses states where different activities are legal, but fails to develop the idea as fully as I would like.

In reading, I was routinely frustrated by his slipping from idea to idea. He moves from counterfeit medicines made with anti-freeze to CDs made without a license. These are the same only from the orientation that both are illegal. There is a continuum of products, from extra CDs stamped by a production line from the original masters to counterfeit aircraft parts made with the wrong steel. There is an important difference between medicines made carefully and correctly (without a license to an overseas patent), and compressed chalk. No one thinks that the Canal Street Louis Vitton bag is real, and no one wants their medicine to be just sugar pills.
(There’s a New York Times story which illustrates a lot of these ideas, “Wall St. Bets on Gambling on the Web.”)

In many ways and many places he acknowledges tensions and the drivers for much of the illicit trade he chronicles. He nails the issues: “illicit trade is driven by high profits, not low morals,” and “give Governments goals they can achieve” are two of the section headings in the “What to Do” chapter. The achievability section is even focused on harm reduction through decriminalization. (It includes a brief reference to Sweden decriminalizing the sale of sex, while criminalizing its purchase.) Even though these sections are there, he never completes his journey from orientating around the state. He discusses the ideas of morals versus economics — yet he titles his book not “Black Markets,” but “Illicit.”

Those states which aim for complete control at best become stultified and backwards. Far more often they become twisted and grotesque. From generating the conditions for corruption their own officials need to function, to massacring their own citizens, totalitarian states are dysfunctional. Calls to “get everyone involved” and “build political will” (two more sections) scare me. I don’t need a sense of national purpose to make my life complete, I need liberty to pursue my own aims, and take satisfaction from my successes.

This book, much like Kevin Kelly’s “Out of Control” or van Creveld’s “Rise and Decline of the State,” chronicles limits of power and control.

The real tragedy in reading this book is how he sees the crisis which faces the nation state, and stops. He doesn’t bring himself to the issue of different and legitimate preferences, from those in the US who think a CD is worth $5 to those who think an hour of lawn-clearing is worth $5, and the immigrant who shows up to take that work. Now, admittedly, Congress has provided for copyright and immigration laws to keep those things from us. They have made them illicit. But the fellow who hires the undocumented worker, and that worker, are both happy with the deal. (There may be someone who is sad he didn’t get $8 an hour for that work. Heck, I’m sad I didn’t get $300 an hour for clearing lawns. My Congressman wasn’t sympathetic to requiring the profession be more highly regulated.)

There are some things (slavery chief amongst them) that we all agree are wrong. There are many others, from cheating on taxes to smoking a joint, which most Americans have done. In labeling all of these illicit, we cheapen those which really are. We degrade the concept, and the remnants of respect for the authority which declares it illicit.

Had Naím had dug deeper into this tension of what is illicit, and why and what are the limits of what we should declare to be illicit, the book would have been so much more. Despite all my critiques, this is an important book, and worth reading.

(Thanks to John Robb of Global Guerillas for his “BOOK REVIEW: ILLICIT by Moises Naim.”)

H&R Block, Unknown # of SSNs, Mailing Labels

Stories like this one make me scratch my head and wonder, what is a breach? What should this category cover? Why do I blog these things? Why are we here? Why are you here? And what are those clowns doing over there?

However, since we sent you this CD, we have become aware of a mail
production situation that has affected a small percentage of recipients,
including you. Due to human error in developing the mailing list, the
digits of your social security number (SSN) were used as part of your
mailing label’s source code, a string of more than 40 numbers and
characters. Fortunately, these digits were embedded in the middle of
the string, and they were not formatted in any manner that would
identify them as an SSN.

Well, that makes me feel a little better than if they were just used as raw data. But I’d really like to see a label, to see if its hard to decipher, or is it simply yournameyourzipyourssn?

Nevertheless, we sincerely apologize for this inadvertent error, which
is completely inconsistent with out strict policies to protect out
clients’ privacy. Our internal policies limit the use of client SSNs
for purposes other than tax preparation. Furthermore, our internal
procedures require that mailing source codes are formulated in a manner
that excludes use of any sensitive or confidential information. Please
know that we have conducted a thorough internal review of this matter,
and are taking actions to ensure this does not re-occur.

That doesn’t make me feel better. Did you fire the person who broke your policies, and put your customers at risk? If not, what message are you sending?

(Clown photo from Daenieworld on Flickr, H&R Block story from funsec, via Larry Seltzer.)

Iowa State (again!), 3000 SSNs+2500 encrypted CC#s, "hacker"

The Des Moines Register reports on a December, 2005 breach at Iowa State:

[3,000 ISU employees’] personal data might have been viewed by hackers who infiltrated two computers earlier this month.
One held about 2,500 encrypted credit card numbers of athletic department donors. The second computer contained Social Security numbers for more than 3,000 ISU employees.

This is hardly the first time Iowa State has gotten hit, either.

A similar breach occurred in June. Personal information for about 3,359 alumni association members and online customers was hacked, ISU officials said.
A computer, which was used to maintain a Web site for the association and its student groups, contained Social Security numbers, credit card numbers and student ID numbers. Officials were unsure whether the information was viewed or copied.
At the University of Iowa, officials reported that a computer at the University Book Store with up to 30,000 credit card numbers and student/employee identification numbers was improperly accessed in May. University officials contacted campus police and the FBI. No arrests were made.
In the most recent breach at ISU, officials said they won’t contact police to find the identity of the intruder.

(emphasis mine)

Identity Theft Poster Girl

..may just have been found!
The Associated Press reports that

Fashion model Beverly Peele was arrested on identity theft charges for allegedly buying around $10,000 worth of housewares, appliances and furniture by using credit card numbers without permission, authorities said Friday.
The complaint filed against the 30-year-old alleges she charged furniture, a refrigerator, a washer and dryer, bedding and other items for her home on credit cards that were in a wallet she had found in a supermarket.
Investigators said Peele returned the wallet to the owner, a Valencia resident, but not before apparently taking down the numbers on the charge cards.
Peele is also accused of having made unauthorized charges on a credit card belonging to a Coto De Caza man who used his credit card at modeling agency where Peele was employed, sheriff’s officials said.

Here’s some of Ms. Peele’s legitimate work, posing for a company that also has had a checkered past with credit card numbers.