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Chinese Ban 'Freedom,' 'Democracy' on Web

Chinese bloggers, even on foreign-sponsored sites, had better choose their words carefully — the censors are watching.

Users of the MSN Spaces section of Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT) new China-based Web portal get a scolding message each time they input words deemed taboo by the communist authorities — such as "democracy," "freedom" and "human rights."

"Prohibited language in text, please delete," the message says.

However, the restrictions appear to apply only to the subject line of such entries. Writing them into the text, with a more innocuous subject heading, seems to be no problem.

Microsoft's Chinese staff could not be reached immediately for comment. However, a spokesman at the tech giant's headquarters in Seattle acknowledged that the company is cooperating with the Chinese government to censor its Chinese-language Web portal.

Microsoft and its Chinese business partner, government-funded Shanghai Alliance Investment (search), work with authorities to omit certain forbidden language, said Adam Sohn, a global sales and marketing director for MSN.

But he added, "I don't have access to the list at this point so I can't really comment specifically on what's there."

Online tests found that apart from politically sensitive words, obscenities and sexual references also are banned.

MSN Spaces (search), which offers free blog space, is connected to Microsoft's MSN China portal. The portal was launched on May 26, and some 5 million blogs have since been created, Microsoft said.

The Chinese government encourages Internet use for business and education but tries to ban access to material deemed subversive.

Although details of the authorities' efforts are kept secret, users of many China-based Web portals are prevented from accessing sites deemed subversive by the government.

A search on Google for such topics as Taiwan or Tibetan independence, the banned group Falun Gong (search), the Dalai Lama or the China Democracy Party (search) inevitably leads to a "site cannot be found" message.

Internet-related companies are obliged to accept such limitations as a condition of doing business in China. And government-installed filtering tools, registration requirements and other surveillance are in place to ensure the rules are enforced.

Recently, the government demanded that Web site owners register with authorities by June 30 or face fines.

Sohn said heavy government censorship is accepted as part of the regulatory landscape in China, and the world's largest software company believes its services still can foster expression in the country.

"We're in business in lots of countries. I think every time you go into a market you are faced with a different regulatory environment and you have to go make a choice as a business," he said. "Even with the filters, we're helping millions of people communicate, share stories, share photographs and build relationships. For us, that is the key point here."

The consequences of defying government limits can be severe: at least 54 people have been jailed for posting essays or other content deemed subversive online.

The international media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders (search) has protested the online limits, sending letters to top executives of Microsoft, Yahoo (YHOO), Google (GOOG) and other companies urging them to lobby Beijing for greater freedom of expression.

"In terms of the reality of the situation, those business deals are going to continue as globalization expands," said Tala Dowlatshahi, a spokeswoman for the group. "But we want to make sure that pressure is being put on the companies to pressure the Chinese government to ensure a more democratic process."