Microsoft Decides to Search Your Data in ‘Offensive Language’ Ban

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

Starting May 1, Microsoft will begin enforcing a ban on “offensive language.” To do so, they have determined that they have the right to mine private user data to “investigate.”

A new Microsoft Terms of Service agreement will soon take effect across their broad spectrum of products and services, granting them license to ban accounts on Xbox Live, Skype, and more. Cursing can trigger that ban, and so can any sexually suggestive material. If Cortana so much as hears you utter an impolite word, you are eligible to have your accounts — and their respective digital balances — terminated.

Civil rights activist and law student Jonathan Corbett was the first to smell something rotten. On his “Professional Troublemaker” blog, Corbett details his search through the updated TOS and the disturbing realization:

So wait a sec: I can’t use Skype to have an adult video call with my girlfriend?  I can’t use OneDrive to back up a document that says “fuck” in it?  If I call someone a mean name in Xbox Live, not only will they cancel my account, but also confiscate any funds I’ve deposited in my account?  (And are we no longer allowed to shoot people in Call of Duty?  Animated violence doesn’t really get any more “graphic” than this Microsoft-approved video game offers.)

And while it seems clear that Microsoft probably will not bother to excise every customer who has ever said a dirty word in front of their invasive A.I. assistant, the problem is how vague their definition of what constitutes a punishable offense actually is. When the only qualifier is “offensive,” and the consequences are a complete invasion of privacy and the restriction of everything from saving text documents to sending e-mail, it seems just a tad open-ended.

It is not difficult to surmise Microsoft’s reasoning behind the change. This new regulation is broadly unenforceable. Even Microsoft admits that it “cannot monitor the entire Services and make no attempt to do so.” What it does provide, however, is a broad rug underneath which to sweep virtually any account it deems “problematic.” Furthermore, the only criteria for searching your data — or even listening to your Skype calls — is that an employee has decided to “investigate.”

Obviously, the changes will also help protect the company from any complications with the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), which was combined with the Stop Enabling Sex-Trafficking Act (SESTA). Those bills, despite all manner of good intention, “[raise] a serious constitutional concern” according to the Department of Justice. The Electronic Frontier Foundation called the passing of the bill “a dark day for the open internet,” asserting that “lawmakers failed to separate their good intentions from bad law.”

And Microsoft is not the only company reacting. Craigslist has deleted their “personals” sections, and Reddit has banned numerous subreddits in response to the new legislation. Even Democratic Senator Ron Wyden loudly criticized the decision, saying:

This bill will only prop up the entrenched players who are rapidly losing the public’s trust. The failure to understand the technological side effects of this bill — specifically that it will become harder to expose sex-traffickers, while hamstringing innovation — will be something that this congress will regret.

Now Microsoft has leveraged that same decision to take universal liberties with any customer who has or will ever use their services. The only solution is to somehow extricate yourself from their network of software — already a virtual impossibility if you’re reading this article — or watch your mouth.

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