Microsoft has censored Chinese-language results for Bing users in the United States as well as mainland China, according to a new article in The Guardian.
When anti-censorship campaigners searched online for a tool that allows uncensored searching of Chinese blogs, they found “that Bing returns radically different results in the U.S. for English and Chinese language searches on a series of controversial terms” such as the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, stated the newspaper. Conducting a search for the Dalai Lama in English, for example, returned his official Website and social media; one in Chinese, on the other hand, resulted in Websites and media sanitized by the mainland Chinese government.
In a statement sent to The Verge and other media outlets, Bing senior director Stefan Weitz suggested that “an error” was responsible for the absence of certain homepages from Chinese-language results in the U.S. He also insisted that Bing “does not apply China’s legal requirements to searches conducted outside of China.”
But this isn’t the first time that Bing’s run into significant controversy over the “sanitizing” of Chinese-language search results outside of mainland China.
In November 2009, Microsoft came under fire from free-speech advocates after New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof accused the company of “craven kowtowing” to the mainland Chinese government by sanitizing its Chinese-language search results for users around the world. “This is especially true of image searches. Magic! No Tiananmen Square massacre,” he wrote at the time, adding: “This is true wherever in the world the search is conducted—including my office in New York.”
By that point, Kristof had been pursuing the story for months; that previous summer, Microsoft had told him that the search results were the result of a “bug” it would fix. When his searches continued to receive the same “sanitized” results, however, he finally went nuclear.
Even after Kristof slammed Microsoft in print, the company kept insisting that a bug was to blame. “Today’s investigations uncovered the fact that our image search is not functioning properly for queries entered using Simplified Chinese characters outside of the PRC (People’s Republic of China),” Adam Sohn, senior director of Bing, wrote in an official blog posting after Kristof’s column went public. “We have identified the bug and are at work on the fix. We expect to have this done before the Thanksgiving holiday.”
Even after all that high-profile back-and-forth, some analysts questioned whether Microsoft had really “fixed the bug,” as some search results still seemed sanitized. “The bug identified in the web image search was indeed fixed,” a Microsoft spokesperson told me in December 2009, after I presented them with a series of screenshots suggesting that the pro-Chinese-government filter remained in effect. “Please also note that Microsoft ‘recognize[s] that we can continue to improve our relevancy and comprehensiveness in these web results and we will.’”
Meanwhile, English and Chinese searches in Google return “broadly similar results,” according to The Guardian.