Microsoft is not a beacon of free expression in the face of China's government restrictions on online speech. But in a talk at Stanford, he said no one can control free expression on the web.
"I don't see any risk in the world at large that someone will restrict free content flow on the Internet," Gates said, according to IDC news service. "You cannot control the Internet."
As the article notes, Microsoft has been complicit in Chinese censorship. In the most high-profile case, the company shut down a blog by Michael Anti, a blogger who the authorities responsible for internet restrictions had noticed. Rebecca MacKinnon, a blogger and professor at Hong Kong University, has outlined how a Microsoft site banned certain sensitive terms in Chinese. (See this post among many others.)
Yahoo, which may become the newest, most famous member of the Microsoft Corp. family, has also cooperated with Chinese authorities in efforts to restrict online expression. To free speech advocates, Gates' comment may seem like a positive element. But I don't expect advocates to give Gates and his company a pass on past cooperation.
It will be driven by business requirements. Restrictions on free speech will curtail business activity, and so commercial forces will work against censorship, Gates said. "If your country wants to have a developed economy ... you basically have to open up the Internet," he said.
These comments frankly strike me as empty words. As much as many idealists would like to believe that free speech is required to be "developed," I would need to see evidence supporting this correlation to get on board. Meanwhile, actions speak louder than words. Both Microsoft and Yahoo have acted in a way that indicates their economic development in China is worth cooperating with policies Gates apparently doesn't see as sustainable.
If Gates believes that free speech is good, and that it will inevitably prevail, I wonder how he feels about participating in filtering in the meantime. An alert Stanford student would have asked him, and if someone did, an alert reporter would have mentioned what he said. If he says you "cannot control the Internet," we can be forgiven for noting that his company helps people try.