Sunday, October 25, 2009

Bill Gates' Opinion on Internet Censorship

I came across an interesting New York Times article from last year, with the headline "Bill Gates: Internet Censorship Won't Work." Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates gave a talk at Stanford University in February 2008 on "Software, Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Giving Back." While there, he spoke briefly on the future of Internet censorship in the world. Gates believes Internet censorship attempts by countries such as China are ultimately doomed to fail. He states he doesn't "see any risk in the world at large that someone will restrict free content flow on the Internet." The reason behind Gates' belief that the Internet cannot be controlled is based on the conflict between business requirements and censorship.

In Gates' view, restrictions on free speech curtail business activity, so businesses will work against censorship. However, this directly contradicts Microsoft's own actions regarding Internet censorship. Especially with regard to China, Microsoft has cooperated with Internet censorship laws of other countries. For example, it has censored the content of Windows Live Spaces, its blog service. In late 2005, Microsoft removed the well-known blog of Chinese journalist Zhao Jing (a.k.a. Michael Anti) from Windows Live Spaces at the request of the Chinese government.

In February 2006, Jack Krumholtz, Microsoft's Managing Director of Federal Government Affairs, gave a congressional testimony on the topic of Internet in China. In it, he stated that Microsoft regretted having to remove the blog, but continuing to provide Internet services to the Chinese is more beneficial than resisting the Chinese government's wishes. The current stand of Microsoft is to remove content when the Chinese government sends an official notice indicating the material violates local laws.

The relationship between Microsoft and the Chinese government indicates the interaction between businesses and governments, especially foreign governments, is more complex than Gates states. The wishes of big businesses influence the government, but only to a certain extent. In the end, businesses are no match against government laws supporting Internet censorship. There is often no reason for businesses to stand up to the government, since cooperation is a much easier option. With this in mind, Gates' belief that Internet censorship will unavoidably come to an end in the future due to businesses working against censorship is a very debatable one. If Internet censorship ever disappears, it will be because of a combination of forces. Looking at the past, public disapproval and resistance will likely play a bigger role than the action of businesses.


  1. Voting

    An interesting point of view, and in some ways a self-serving one for Gates. There is a major political/philosophical divide in the world as to how much the workings of the “free market” should be left to make social decisions, and how much has to be controlled by entities with motives other than corporate profits (e.g., governments, international bodies, etc.). The American culture doesn’t generally have much patience with solutions other than profit motivation, but it is a narrow view to assume this of the rest of the world.

    I agree with you that in the short run (which is what drives corporate decision making), it will be in the interests of companies to go along with state-mandated censorship. So it could be that the sum of all these short-term decisions is a long-term trend that Gates would say undercuts business, but nevertheless is chosen by business.

    Your last paragraph raises the important question – if censorship won’t be avoided for purely profit reasons, what other forces can come into play? What would it take, in a variety of countries, for “public disapproval and resistance” to occur and be effective. It is interesting to note that in countries like China, there are large numbers of ordinary citizens who volunteer to patrol the Internet to keep things out that the government doesn’t want.

    What are the political/social conditions that lead to effective resistance?

  2. I think it's really interesting that Gates himself says that internet censorship will ultimately become futile, and yet his company actively (although "regrettably") participates in it. In the short run, it is obviously more advantagous for the company to obey the wishes of the Chinese government, as Jack Krumholtz points out, but I wonder if they will continue to do so in the future.

    I think a more realistic viewpoint would be that although big companies like Microsoft will still bend to the requests of governments, there are plenty of other resources out there that people can utilize if they truly want to make themselves heard. Perhaps Bill Gates subscribes to this belief, if he will inevitably continue to give in to government censorship demands.