During a recent interview with Bloomberg News, Microsoft President Brad Smith said that the Microsoft Corporation stands out from other tech giants in its better, unique approach to so-called “misinformation.” Smith acknowledged that people like to “make up their own mind” about what’s true and false: “I don’t think people want governments to tell them what’s true or false,” Smith said, “and I don’t think they’re really interested in having tech companies tell them either.” So instead of censoring content or labeling it “false,” he said Microsoft seeks to “provide people with more information, not less.”
After recent evidence of government officials working with Facebook and Twitter to censor disfavored speech, it’s refreshing to hear the head of a major tech company talk about the importance of free speech.
But a closer look at Microsoft’s business practices shows that it fails to practice what it preaches.
While Brad Smith is right to speak out against censorship, Bing, Microsoft’s search engine, has recently hidden search results from users in North America on topics deemed controversial in China. In the past, Microsoft has also revoked non-profit pricing status for Alliance Defending Freedom due to baseless charges from the thoroughly discredited, blatantly partisan Southern Poverty Law Center.
Microsoft’s misguided actions reflect fundamental flaws at the policy level. The company scored just 5 percent overall on the Viewpoint Diversity Score 2022 Business Index—second-worst among the 50 Fortune 1000 industry leaders included in the inaugural evaluation.
For instance, Microsoft is one of 34 percent of companies on the Business Index that exclude or threaten to exclude charities based on their faith-based issue advocacy. That marginalizes religious employees. Picking winners and losers among non-profits is a curious strategy for a company that says it wants to protect the open exchange of ideas.
The company’s support for and reliance upon far-left groups and politicians hostile to free speech and religious freedom is another indicator that it has much to improve to safeguard the free speech rights of its customers, employees, and other stakeholders.
The market section of the Business Index evaluates whether companies’ policies and practices respect the freedom of expression and belief of customers, users, sellers, creators, and other external stakeholders. Microsoft earned a low score of 8 percent in this category. Microsoft’s lackluster score reflects in large part its decision not to participate in the survey portion of the Business Index. Participating in the survey allows for the most accurate score on the Business Index, and more importantly, it demonstrates a commitment to transparency to shareholders, employees, and customers. But primarily, Microsoft’s low score is because its policies do not protect everyone and pose threats to certain religious and ideological views.
Microsoft requires vendors, contractors, and third parties to adopt DE&I (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) affirmations. Its policy states “we expect Vendors to be diverse and to offer diverse staffing for our work.” However, Microsoft doesn’t qualify whether this diversity includes protections for diverse religious and political values. Its policies also outline that “Microsoft Partners will not use any form of language which may be considered discriminatory, intimidating, harassing…or inappropriate.” Vaguely phrased policies like this can easily be used to censor any number of persons or statements company employees deem “inappropriate.”
Equally concerning are Microsoft’s policies imposing speech restrictions based on the customer or vendor’s viewpoint. Per Microsoft’s “Restricted Categories,” it states that “advertising cannot exploit sensitive political issues for commercial gain or promote extreme political agendas or any known associations with hate, criminal, or terrorist activities.” But while “hate” may be liable for restriction, the company has no policy that protects against religious or ideological discrimination.
Without a firm definition—which policies like these universally lack—“hate” can be used as an umbrella term to cover any speech that pushes against the cultural narrative. Similar policies have been weaponized by Twitter, for instance, which in the past relied on its “hateful conduct policy” to punish users for their views on the biological differences between men and women.
Even more alarming—and in direct contradiction to Smith’s public comments—is Microsoft’s recent censorship of information disfavored by government officials.
In May of 2022, The Wall Street Journal reported that Microsoft hid search results on topics to comply with Chinese laws. When Bing users in America searched for terms such as Xi Jinping, Tiananmen Square protests, and “tank man,” the search engine’s autofill feature failed to make suggestions. Microsoft wrote it off as a “misconfiguration.” However, an error that hides history from Americans at the behest of Beijing is a serious threat to the free exchange of ideas.
Microsoft could raise its score by avoiding unclear and imprecise terms in its use of service and harmful conduct policies. By clarifying what falls under “discrimination” and “hate,” it can provide assurance that this policy will not be used to chill religious or political expression.
Microsoft could also show its commitment to free speech and boost trust with users by disclosing requests from government and non-government entities to censor information, as well as the company’s response to these requests. Viewpoint Diversity Score offers model policies that can help companies like Microsoft provide clarity and transparency to its customers and vendors alike, while also improving their credibility.
A company’s workplace section score on the Business Index reflects its respect for religious and ideological diversity in the workplace. Microsoft earned just 5 percent in this category. This is due to the company’s failure to respond to the survey portion of the Business Index, and can also be attributed to serious red flags in its policies.
Specifically, Microsoft does not disclose any policy that promotes diverse beliefs at work, does not mention viewpoint diversity on any career webpage, and does not reference any commitments to respecting differences of opinion in the workplace. Not only is Microsoft’s lack of protections bad news for Microsoft employees, it’s also bad for business. Trust, openness, and diversity of thought are essential drivers of innovation, engagement, and ethical accountability in every business. Businesses thrive when employees know that their fundamental beliefs matter and are respected.
Notably, Microsoft threatens to exclude faith-based non-profits from employee matching donation programs. This overt discrimination restricts charitable choice and forces religious employees to check their faith at the door when it comes to giving back.
Microsoft’s lack of protections for viewpoint diversity and the civil rights of its employees at a company of its size and power presents a problem for all Americans. As Jeremy Tedesco said in an interview with Heritage Foundation President Kevin Roberts, major corporations “have an enormous impact on our public dialogue and our ability to debate issues, which is essential to a free society.” If Microsoft wants to stand out among other tech companies in its commitment to free speech, it should start by respecting diverse opinions within the company.
Fortunately, there are tangible steps companies like Microsoft can take towards a workplace environment that’s welcoming to people with diverse religious and ideological views. Microsoft can start by reviewing all eligibility requirements and participation criteria for employee matching gift programs and eliminating any restrictions based on religious status, practice, or beliefs. It can also commit to respecting employees’ rights by adopting a Viewpoint Diversity Policy, an Off Duty Civil Rights Policy, and a Workplace Religious Accommodation Policy. These actions would send a message to employees and to the public that Microsoft cares about free speech and encourages mutual respect across ideological and religious differences.
The Public Square section on the Business Index evaluates whether corporate giving practices and public advocacy broadly respect free speech, religious tolerance, and open discourse. While Microsoft’s market and workplace section scores were low, its record of supporting politicians and campaigns that threaten First Amendment freedoms yielded zero points in the third and final section.
Nearly half of the company’s political spending has gone to members of the U.S. Congress with negative legislative records on free speech and religious liberty. Likewise, Microsoft joined other major corporations in supporting the Equality Act as part of the Human Rights Campaign’s “Business Coalition for the Equality Act.”
Though “nondiscrimination” sounds good in the abstract, bills like the Equality Act would actually increase discrimination against many people. This legislation would coerce uniformity of thought on important issues such as marriage, sex, and even what it means to be male and female, threatening the free speech rights of every American. It would create unfair playing fields for women and girls in athletics and education, violate women’s privacy by forcing them to share private spaces with men, and force people who willingly serve everyone to promote messages and celebrate events that conflict with their beliefs.
Microsoft depends on a politically and religiously diverse customer base. It has a responsibility to use its resources for causes that protect the freedom of every employee, shareholder, customer, and U.S. citizen. Yet, as the Business Index demonstrates, Microsoft is instead leveraging its influence in service of a dangerous and divisive agenda.
Microsoft could raise its score by discontinuing current and future support for causes that limit access to information, undermine free speech, or curtail religious freedom. It could also raise its score by balancing its spending, and advocating for or financially supporting campaigns, organizations, or initiatives that protect free speech and religious freedom.
In a time fraught with much political division, companies like Microsoft should steer clear of partisan agendas and censorship. Instead, Microsoft should use its unique position to safeguard free speech and religious freedom, which are integral to its success and to the wellbeing of the people it serves and employs.
It would benefit Microsoft to clarify its current policies and adopt new policies to respect viewpoint diversity and freedom of expression both inside and outside the company. Microsoft should also embrace transparency on the key issues of free speech and religious freedom by participating in the survey portion of the 2023 Business Index.