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Web User Study in China Questioned June 2, 2007

Posted by Joanne KY Teoh in News.

Reporters Without Borders has sounded the alarm on research Microsoft is conducting in China to develop technology that can profile Internet users. The group says the Chinese government could use this type of technology to track down Internet users who access controversial material online.

Microsoft researchers are analyzing Web surfing patterns to guess computer users’ gender, age and other demographic information. This way of profiling is interesting because demographic information is not easy to obtain as Internet users are reluctant to expose personal data in public.

These technologies could eventually lead to the creation of programs that could identify “subversive” citizens.’ This is obviously not Microsoft’s intention. But we believe it is unacceptable to carry out this kind of sensitive research in a country such as China where 50 people are currently in prison because of what they posted online.

Reporters Without Borders

Reporters Without Borders is a Paris-based organization that advocates freedom of the press and the safety of journalists. It says the Microsoft study comes amid efforts by the Chinese authorities to combat online anonymity. The data stored by Internet companies is a source of concern in many countries.

Reporters Without Borders cites an article in The New Scientist magazine, which quoted the Microsoft researchers in China who authored the paper as saying refined profiles gathered according to their method could “one day predict your occupation, level of qualifications, and perhaps your location.”

Microsoft says its research is not to develop ways to identify individuals but to produce a “more personalized experience for users of Internet applications” and “to more narrowly target online advertising.”

The use of Internet behavior to track users’ identities in China is a recurring issue for other companies including Yahoo. A Chinese political prisoner sued Yahoo in a California court in April, claiming the company provided the Chinese government with information linking him to controversial articles posted online.

The Internet Society of China, an offshoot of the ministry for the information industry, posted a draft law on 22 May asking blog services to encourage users to register under their own names and exercise “self-discipline.” President Hu Jintao met China’s political bureau in April to discuss how to improve control over the Internet and to “purify” it.



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