My recent blog entries were about Skype and about how companies might eventually abuse the power they have over some of our technology. Many of my arguments against Skype also apply to Microsoft’s instant messenger. Now Microsoft gave one more example that this abuse actually happens. Ars technica writes:
Microsoft this week decided to turn off its Windows Live Messenger service for five countries: Cuba, Syria, Iran, Sudan, and North Korea. […] The user is not informed as to the actual reason for the block. Currently, it’s not clear how broad the block is or how long it will last.
Although there are already workarounds that the affected users can use to regain access to the communication network, it is unclear how long they will work and whether Microsoft will use more advanced techniques to lock out certain users in the future. If the people in Cuba, Syria, Iran, Sudan, and North Korea would have used decentralized and open communication networks such as Jabber, Microsoft would not have been able to disable their access. Hopefully, the people that actually did use the Live Messenger don’t make the same mistake again and don’t fall for ICQ, AIM or Yahoo Messenger. Switching to one of those services might solve the problem in the short term, but still leaves them vulnerable to lock-out, censorship and spying. Jabber on the other hand allows them to chose a service provider for instant messaging that they can trust. If they don’t trust anybody they can even deploy their own Jabber server that only they control and still be able to talk to any other Jabber user. This works quite like Email that is from a time when information technology was still made to serve the people instead of enslaving them.
From the article you linked to, it seems like Microsoft just follows US law.
“Microsoft has discontinued providing Instant Messenger services in certain countries subject to United States sanctions. Details of these sanctions are available from the United States Office of Foreign Assets Control.”
Microsoft is not alone in this: Google, AOL Join Microsoft in Banning Users in US Embargoed Countries
Other companies offering instant messaging services and clients have started blocking access of citizens in countries under trade embargo by the United States after Microsoft announced a similar move recently. Countries currently affected are Cuba, Syria, Iran, Sudan and North Korea, all of which are under trade embargo regulated by the United States Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).
Seems like a political problem. It doesn’t mean Microsoft is evil.
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I didn’t say that Microsoft is evil, although it is, but also for other reasons.
You are right in pointing out that Microsoft is somehow following one ominous interpretation of US law. I’m not sure if this is the only valid interpretation. Did they try to fight for the people’s right and test this interpretation in court? As far as I know, they didn’t and in the end it even strengthens my main point: We should not use technology that we do not control.
How can it be justified that people are being excluded from using modern technology, from using extremely useful tools such as communication services? Many people even depend on those tools in one way or another. Shutting them off, heavily disrupts their lives. If those people learn to use technology that they can freely use, study, share and improve as long as they wish, they no longer have to fear to be excluded from the digital age. Then their digital tools can not be taken away or shut off remotely. They would be able to regain control and to thrive independently.
Some remarks on the details:
Of course, the blockade can still be circumvented, but it is the intention and the attempt that counts. This attempt should be condemned. Who knows how big the impact of the next attempt will be. Just imagine how you would feel if only some of your precious internet tools would stop working for you. Do we really want to allow for digital outcasts?
The source you posted goes like this: “Under the trade embargo laws companies in the US can offer communications services to the affected countries but they may not allow the download of their software, even if it is free, as it is considered to be among exportable goods.” If offering communication services is still ok, why was Microsoft then blocking access to these same services?
“Did they try to fight for the people’s right and test this interpretation in court?
Microsoft is a company that exist to make a profit. They only have to defend their business interests.
“If offering communication services is still ok, why was Microsoft then blocking access to these same services?”
This is an interesting question. MIcrosoft doesn’t provide a more precise answer to this question. These sanctions aren’t new either. They have existed for several years. Maybe it’s part of creating diplomatic pressure on those countries. After Obama took over the presidency lots of positions were given to new people. So this might just be some ambitious guy in the foreign ministry showing he takes his job seriously. So he calls up the major companies. This is pure speculation of course.
Events like these are perfectly good examples that decentralized networks with open protocols have advantages. But with some caveats. Let’s assume I have an account at a Jabber server email@example.com. If uberjabber.org goes down or blocks my country, I have to get a new account from some other service. Now I have to rebuild my contact list from scratch again. The same is true if I switch from MSN to ICQ. So the difference in inconvenience is not that great. Don’t get me wrong. Jabber is pretty awesome. Especially if I want to build my own network.