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Microsoft research in China into "profiling" Internet users raises free expression concerns

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders is worried about a report in the British magazine "New Scientist" that a Microsoft laboratory based in China is carrying out research on software that can analyse the behaviour of Internet users with precision and draw up a profile of them (their age, sex, geographic origin and so on). The US software corporation's aim is get to know its users better in order to deliver targeted advertising.

"The technologies Microsoft is working on would allow it to gather information about Internet users without their knowledge," the press freedom organisation said. "These technologies could eventually lead to the creation of programmes 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 added: "US Internet giants such as Yahoo!, Google and Microsoft gather fantastic amounts of information about their users. This is already a thorny issue in democratic countries. This kind of data accumulation obviously poses even more ethical problems in a country such as China which has absolutely no respect for the private lives of Internet users. We must be sure that the technologies developed by these companies do not enable repressive regimes to keep their population under more effective surveillance."

"New Scientist" reports in its 16 May 2007 issue that Microsoft is working on software capable of guessing the Internet user's age, sex and even geographic origin by analysing their surfing habits. It would enable verification and clarification of the information voluntarily provided by Internet users when registering for online services. The magazine bases its report on a study entitled "Demographic prediction based on users' browsing behaviour" (download the pdf at ) published by researchers working for a Microsoft laboratory in Beijing. The study says the information would be acquired by analysing the browser cache (stored browsing history) and cookies (small spy applications) on the Internet user's computer.

In China, it is conceivable that this type of technology would be used to spot Internet users who regularly access such "subversive" content as news and information websites critical of the regime. The authorities would then be able to identify the "sensitive" Internet population and locate them individually by means of their computer IP addresses (the identifying number that every computer gives when connected to the Internet).

This Microsoft study comes amid efforts by the Chinese authorities to combat online anonymity. 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." When President Hu Jintao and the Communist Party political bureau met on 23 April to discuss how to improve control over the Internet, they said they wanted to "purify" it.

The data stored by Internet companies is a source of concern in many countries. A European consultative body, for example, wrote to Google in mid-May criticising its confidential data protection policies. The US company had nonetheless announced that data would be rendered anonymous - meaning the IP addresses would be erased - after being held for 24 months. Its rivals, Yahoo! and Microsoft, have not even established this limitation.

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