Updated

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Free speech?

Wow, things are heating up quickly on the Chinese censorship front — and what is most intriguing is that American investors might have some say in this. We will watch this one closely as it develops:

Here is what is happening: The latest controversy started when the Chinese took down the blog of Michael Anti, a Chinese pro-democracy blogger critical of the Chinese government. Anti then moved over to a blog at Microsoft MSN’s My Spaces, where he was getting 8,000 hits a day and growing, and posting English translations of other political commentary.

Now, we don’t know enough about the sources of all this information to be sure, but what happens next is bizarre. From what we can tell (follow the links in this summary story), a blogger at the largest Chinese blog network, Bokee, denounces MSN for hosting Anti, and calls for readers to rise up and oppose Microsoft.

Then, Microsoft apparently drops Anti. And then Robert Scoble, Microsoft’s internal blogmeister, says his employers actions are “not right,” and says he learned from his grandmother in Nazi Germany that you have to stand up for the little…

guy.

We note that Bokee is getting criticized for launching this attack against a potential competitor, Microsoft. But it was really one of Bokee’s bloggers, and not necessarily Bokee. If Bokee is behind this, it is serious stuff, because there are numerous U.S. investors backing Bokee, including some based here, as we mentioned earlier (Granite Global, Bessemer and Mobius). Some of these investors are even on the company’s board. If Bokee is not behind this, what does it do? Does it crack down on the Chinese blogger critical of Anti, and thus shut down his free speech rights? Probably not, because Beijing would shut down Bokee instanlty. Failing that, is there a half-way measure? Does it come out and say it does not support the views of any of its bloggers, including the Anti critic, which would be the right thing to do but which would still expose itself to a crackdown by Beijing — which would destroy its business? Not likely. It will probably stay mum, which will only worsen things for pro-democratic folks. Oy, this is a tough one.

Update. Btw, we have emailed venture capitalist Jenny Lee, who is in the Shanghai office of Granite, and who has invested in Bokee, to see if she has a response. We’ll report back…

Update II. Jenny got back to us, via email. As we suspected would happen, she said “no comment.”

Update III. Here is a statement that Microsoft sent us this afternoon, which they attributed to Brooke Richardson, MSN Group Product Manager:

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.

Unique elements, indeed.