Chinese citizens expect their government to censor search results. But according to The Guardian, Bing has been censoring results for Chinese language searches, even when you access the Microsoft-owned search engine within the U. S. of A.
Search for "Dalai Lama" in English vs. "达赖喇嘛" (Dalai Lama in Chinese) and the discrepancy is glaring. When I searched for the spiritual leader in English this afternoon, what popped up was his official website, images of his face, news of his recent meeting with the children of a jailed Tibetan filmmaker, and his Wikipedia entry. When I searched for the same term in Chinese, the top results Bing served up were links to Baidu Baike, "China's heavily censored Wikipedia rival run by the search engine Baidu," as well as China Central Television.
Oddly enough, we noticed the same censorship not just entities the Chinese government considers controversial, like Falun Gong and FreeGate, "a popular internet workaround for government censorship." Bing also showed us completely different search results for beloved basketball star Yao Ming. These same skewed results show up on Yahoo, which is powered by Bing.
What does Microsoft get out of this proactive censorship? The company is aware that we have reached out for comment. Meanwhile, The Guardian pointedly notes its growing business interests in China:
Bing accounts for a small percentage of search in China but has been building up its web services in the country. Microsoft is in the middle of hiring 1,000 new employees to build up its services in China.
Author Charlie Smith originally noted the difference in results when he was checking for information on FreeWeibo.com, a website he cofounded to search Chinese social media anonymously. Smith told the paper:
"It's a bit crazy. Any Chinese person who is searching in Chinese from overseas is being treated as if they have the same rights as a resident of mainland China. So we won't show them the accurate search results if they search for Dalai Lama. What you get is state controlled propaganda," he said. "Except they don't tell you the results have been censored. If you were in China they would at least tell you that."
If you're keeping track at home, Microsoft, which just signed a pledge against mass surveillance, is apparently less transparent than the Chinese government when it comes to search.
Update: Stefan Weitz, senior director at Bing, sent the following comment to Valleywag late this evening. (Greatfire.orgatfire.org is a censorship blog, also cofounded by Charlie Smith, which initially collected information about the discrepancies.) I've sent follow-up questions about the error and why Baike Baidu showed up so high for Chinese language searches. I will update the post if I hear back.
"We've conducted an investigation of the claims raised by Greatfire.org.
First, Bing does not apply China's legal requirements to searches conducted outside of China. Due to an error in our system, we triggered an incorrect results removal notification for some searches noted in the report but the results themselves are and were unaltered outside of China.
Second, with regard to the freeweibo.com homepage being absent from Bing search results, our investigation indicates that at some time in the past the page was marked as inappropriate due to low quality or adult content. After review, we have determined the page is acceptable for inclusion in global search results.
Bing aims to provide a robust set of high-quality, relevant search results to our users. In doing so, Bing has extremely high standards that respect human rights, privacy and freedom of expression.
Microsoft is a signatory to the Global Network Initiative, which is an effort by a multi-stakeholder group of companies, civil society organizations (including human rights and press freedom groups), investors and academics to protect and advance freedom of expression and privacy on the Internet. As part of our commitment to GNI, Microsoft follows a strict set of internal procedures for how we respond to specific demands from governments requiring us to block access to content. We apply these principles carefully and thoughtfully to our Bing version for the People's Republic of China."
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[Images via Bing]