by Madison Ruppert
Piracy seems to be the favorite excuse nowadays when it comes to censorship, destroying internet freedom, and even absurdly large domestic digital surveillance operations.
Now Microsoft, one of the world’s largest corporations in the technology sector, has been actively monitoring and censoring conversations on their Windows Live Messenger program.
Even more disturbing, Microsoft now admits that they have been censoring conversations between users on Windows Live Messenger for quite a while now.
They are blocking certain links from being shared between users, one of which includes the Pirate Bay, one of the most popular and well-known file sharing websites on earth.
Interestingly, they are not only blocking the torrent tracker section of the website which enables peer-to-peer file sharing, they are also blocking a page which is devoted to completely legal file sharing.
Recently popular file sharing news site Torrent Freak discovered the block lists being used by Windows Live Messenger. Interestingly, they found that the Pirate Bay was blocked by the messenger service while other torrent tracking websites which offer the exact same copyrighted content were not.
The Promo Bay provides a platform for artists to submit their creations in order to be exposed to a massive audience.
This enables artists from around the world to develop a world-wide fan base by leveraging peer-to-peer file sharing, the same technology which has industry giants up in arms and trying to push freedom-crushing legislation like the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), and the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA).
Thankfully, it appears to be the case that SOPA and PIPA have died (at least for now, until they’re repackaged and put on the floor once again), although quite unfortunately, ACTA was signed by the Obama administration without Congressional approval.
For some reason, Microsoft thinks it is legitimate to block the legitimate sharing of files approved by the artists themselves, which is nothing short of ludicrous.
The concept of block lists aimed at preventing users from opening websites infected with malware or other viruses on social networks is nothing new.
Indeed, most major social networks like Facebook and Twitter use such block lists, but this move from Microsoft kicks it up a notch or three.
Whereas other services simply warn the user that a link may be unsafe before they open it, thus allowing them to bypass the warning and visit the suspicious site, Microsoft appears to be actually preventing the link from even going through.
Apparently Microsoft is actively blocking these links from being sent between users, throwing up the message, “The link you tried to send was blocked because it was reported as unsafe.”
This means that the user on the other end is prevented from ever seeing the link, completely censoring the conversation.
This makes one wonder where this censorship could stop, especially since it is being done by a private corporation which essentially has the ability to censor anything and everything they see fit.
Could they start preventing links from being sent which contain information criticizing Microsoft? Other than public outcry, nothing is stopping them from doing so.
According to Raw Story, the same link which was blocked by Windows Live Messenger went through fine on Facebook, Twitter, AOL Instant Messenger, Google Talk and other popular chat services.
Furthermore, they point out that those services did not even present a warning saying that the domain may be a threat.
This is likely because the link is, in fact, not a threat in any way.
A spokesperson with Microsoft informed Raw Story that this practice of actively censoring conversations between users on Windows Live Messenger is not a new practice.
Indeed, they said that for quite a while now they have been using Microsoft’s SmartScreen technology to censor links which they believe are spam, identity theft scams (often referred to as “phishing”) and malware.
“Windows Live Messenger is set up to help ensure customers receive IMs only from people whose IMs are welcome and has long had the capability to block certain content from being transmitted in an effort to protect our customers,” the spokesperson said.
“Before anyone can send customers an IM, those customers must first agree to add the sender to their Contact list; this helps protect customers from unwanted IMs from strangers and from annoyances such as spam and spim (spam via IM),” they added.
But their attempts to stop unwanted data transmission do not end there, they actually go far beyond just helping people steer clear of strangers and spammers.
“In addition, we use SmartScreen® technology to protect our customers from malicious and unwanted content including phishing, malware and spam,” the spokesperson explained. “We block instant messages if they contain malicious or spam URLs based on intelligence algorithms, third-party sources, and/or user complaints. Pirate Bay URLs were flagged by one or more of these and were consequently blocked.”
This sounds like a great practice in theory, but the fact that it completely blocks transmission, instead of just giving the user a prominent warning, is somewhat troubling.
This opens the door to censorship of many other websites or even specific pieces of information. This SmartScreen technology could even be used to block messages without the user who sent them knowing.
If the warning that appears when one attempts to send a link to the Promo Bay were not to show up, it might be the case that the individual who sent it never realizes that it was blocked.
This type of censorship is always done, at first, under the guise of fighting piracy, spam, malware, and such. But once you open the door to this kind of behavior and acclimate the American people to having their conversations automatically monitored and censored, you create the possibility of much wider and more troubling surveillance programs.
After all, the National Security Agency (NSA) is building a massive heavily fortified data center in Utah which would be perfectly suited to the monitoring, collection and analysis of information like this captured by private sector partners like Microsoft.
Hopefully this is innocent and only being used to protect users from legitimate threats, but considering the fact that they are already blocking a website which is neither a threat nor infringing on copyrights, I’m not ready to assume that this is the case just yet.
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