Microsoft-owned search engine Bing censors content that is politically sensitive to the Chinese government for users who are using the search engine from the United States, researchers claim in a new report.
The research shows how censorship efforts in one country can bleed over and impact users in others. The findings come after Bing censored image searches for the infamous “tank man” even from the United States last June. At the time, Microsoft blamed that issue on an “accidental human error.” The new research indicates more widespread censorship of politically sensitive searches, and especially names of certain people.
“Using statistical techniques, we preclude politically sensitive Chinese names in the United States being censored purely through random chance. Rather, their censorship must be the result of a process disproportionately targeting names which are politically sensitive in China,” the report, written by researchers from the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs Citizen Lab, reads.
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Microsoft operates Bing in China with limitations in place so it falls in line with Chinese law. Much of that involves heavy censorship around certain topics, events, and people, often resulting in those areas being undiscoverable via Bing searches conducted from within China. For comparison, Google planned to launch a dedicated search engine just for the Chinese market which would have complied with the country’s strict laws, and was met with widespread criticism, both inside and outside the company, before being shelved.
Citizen Lab tested what form that censorship took on Bing by examining what names autosuggested on Bing when typing search terms into the site while connecting from mainland China, Canada, and the United States, and while performing the search in Chinese or English characters in December last year.
Citizen Lab found that 93.8% of names in Chinese characters that were “Chinese political” were censored from the United States, while 6.2% of names in Chinese characters that were “not Chinese political” were censored from the United States. The result “all but confirm[s] that Bing is targeting Chinese politically sensitive names in the United States for censorship,” the report reads. For English letter searches, such as “Xi Jinping,” Citizen Lab did not find similar levels of censorship from the United States.
Across mainland China, Canada, and the United States, Citizen Lab “observed overwhelming censorship of Chinese character names relating to Chinese politics. These names predominantly pertain to names of top-level Chinese government leaders and party figures, including incumbent leaders (e.g., 习近平, “Xi Jinping”), retired officials (e.g., 温家 宝, “Wen Jiabao”, a former Chinese Premier), historical figures (e.g., 李大钊, “Li Dazhao”, a co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party), and party leaders involved in political scandals or power struggle (e.g., 周永康, “Zhou Yongkang”, a former Party leader),” the report reads.
As Citizen Lab notes, the censorship of these names in China may be due to Microsoft complying with legal restrictions in the country. “However, there is no legal reason for the names to be censored in Bing autosuggestions in the United States and Canada,” the report states.
In a statement to Motherboard, a Microsoft spokesperson said that “We addressed a technical error where a small number of users may have experienced a misconfiguration that prevented surfacing some valid autosuggest terms and we thank Citizen Labs for bringing this to our attention.”
“We were not able to reproduce other examples they cited in their report after trying multiple scenarios. In general, the autosuggestions someone sees are largely based on the query itself, and driven largely by user behavior, such as the queries other local users are searching for. Not seeing an autosuggestion does not mean it has been blocked,” the statement added. The company did not respond to a specific question from Motherboard asking why Bing was not performing autosuggestions for certain Chinese politically sensitive names for users who were connecting from the United States.
Jeffrey Knockel, a research associate at Citizen Lab who worked on the report, told Motherboard in an emailed statement that “While they note that some of our findings from December 2021 are no longer reproducible in May 2022, our report recognizes that the censorship of autosuggestions fluctuates over time. However, we also would note that the direction of fluctuation is not always in the direction of reducing censorship. We are happy that our research led to Microsoft's discovery and resolution of a misconfiguration preventing valid autosuggestions from appearing. However, aside from general fluctuations, we are unaware of any change in Bing’s overall tendency to censor politically sensitive autosuggestions in regions outside of China.”
Search engine DuckDuckGo uses Bing’s autosuggestion features. Citizen Lab did not perform extensive testing on DuckDuckGo, but found the search engine does not provide an autosuggestion for “xi” when browsing from Canada, which users might ordinarily expect to autosuggest “Xi Jinping.”
Kamyl Bazbaz, spokesperson from DuckDuckGo, told Motherboard in a statement that “Our policy is to not actively censor anything unless legally required to do so. We have no relationship with the Chinese government or assets in China, and DuckDuckGo has actually been blocked in China since 2014 due to us not censoring anything. Bing is a primary search partner and we work with them continuously to improve search results. If we find that autofill is not working appropriately, we will work to rectify the circumstances.”
In the report, Citizen Lab discusses whether Microsoft could permanently address this issue. “The findings in this report again demonstrate that an Internet platform cannot facilitate free speech for one demographic of its users while applying extensive political censorship against another demographic of its users,” they write. One solution could be for Microsoft to launch a separate operation in China entirely, the researchers write.
Updated: This piece has been updated to include a statement from DuckDuckGo.