On May 23 Microsoft formally announced a new version of Windows 10, customized for an important client—the Chinese government.
The tailor-made software’s unveiling highlights the hoops foreign internet companies must jump through in China and the tighter controls they face, as well as China’s worries over possible US snooping and cybersecurity. The new edition comes as a new Cybersecurity Law, which will require foreign tech companies in China to give the government unprecedented access to proprietary technology, is set to go into effect.
According to a blog post written by Terry Myerson, executive vice president of Microsoft’s Windows and Device Group, the software, simply titled “Windows 10 China Government Edition,” is a variation of Windows 10 Enterprise edition, albeit with a few key differences.
For one thing, it will “enable the government to use its own encryption algorithms within its computer systems,” Microsoft’s official release reads. It will also let the government “manage all telemetry”—typically understood to mean information and analytics about how and what the computer is running.
In addition, Microsoft states that Windows 10 China Government Edition will not come with OneDrive (Microsoft’s cloud storage service) and other “features not needed by by Chinese government employees.” OneDrive was blocked in China in 2014 as part of a larger crackdown on foreign internet companies during Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement protests.
Most importantly, Microsoft states it cooperated with the Chinese government on a “security review” of the software. It’s not clear what this review entailed specifically. Representatives for Microsoft did not answer Quartz’s questions about the customized version of Windows 10, and only referred back to Myerson’s original blog post.
A provision to China’s 2016 Cybersecurity Law, set to be implemented on June 1, states that reviews will screen for risks of “network products and services” potentially “being unlawfully controlled, interfered with, or disrupted.” Yet many speculate that these reviews entail revealing source code (paywall), the building blocks of any software product, to authorities.
Microsoft unveiled the software at a bilingual launch event in Shanghai. A YouTube video of the event shows Myerson peppering his speech with nods to Chinese innovations like the compass and the abacus. The software’s first customers include China’s national customs agency.
The new software was developed via a joint venture with China Electronics Technology Group, a state-owned enterprise that develops hardware and software for the Chinese military. Microsoft first announced the tie-up in December 2015.
That agreement marked a turning point for Microsoft in China, which has long endured a testy relationship with Chinese authorities and consumers. Despite Windows’ ubiquity in China, most versions of the software there are pirated, which has prevented Microsoft from generating licensing revenue. Meanwhile (and somewhat ironically), in 2014, the authorities raided Microsoft’s offices in China, ostensibly for violating an antimonopoly law (paywall).
The Chinese government needs Windows, which remains the backbone of PC computing worldwide. But using the software’s standard version remains politically unfeasible. For one thing, dependence on foreign technology for something as critical as an operating system contradicts Beijing’s oft-stated desire to bolster its domestic tech industry. In addition, the revelations of former US national security contractor Edward Snowden (which implicated Microsoft in a government-backed surveillance operation) have given Beijing adequate reason to fear that off-the-shelf versions of Microsoft contain “back doors” for US snooping.
In forming a joint venture with a state-owned enterprise, Microsoft is in effect hitting “restart” amid an even tougher political climate for American tech firms in China. “Windows 10 China Government Edition” marks a compromise (or a concession, some might argue), which might help Microsoft make more money in China and navigate its bureaucracy more easily.
By allowing for customization for encryption and telemetry data, and even potentially revealing proprietary source code, Microsoft, in theory, can allay Beijing’s fears that Windows will remain vulnerable to foreign surveillance. In practice, though, it might also lose control over its intellectual property. And if state authorities indeed peek at its source code, it might even make off-the-shelf Windows more vulnerable to Chinese surveillance.
Adam Segal, who researches internet policy in China and the US, says that Microsoft’s customized product might set a precedent that will grow more common. “This will put pressure on other companies to create products for the Chinese government, and other countries, like Russia and India, are going to ask why isn’t Microsoft doing the same for them.”