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Microsoft Bing accused of censoring Chinese keywords in North America

Microsoft search engine Bing censors search suggestions on China, says Citizen Lab report, along with Yahoo and DuckDuckGo

A Microsoft building

Microsoft apparently censors autofill suggestions for searches on certain Chinese politicians and political events in North America, alleges a report by The Citizen Lab published on May 19.

While typing in a term like “Joe Biden” into Bing results in a drop-down “autofill” box suggesting popular search options, queries for President Xi Jinping, the late human rights activist Liu Xiaobo and searches related to the Tiananmen Square massacre do not show any such recommendations, the report said.

“We consistently found that Bing censors politically sensitive Chinese names over time, that their censorship spans multiple Chinese political topics, consists of at least two languages, English and Chinese, and applies to different world regions, including China, the United States and Canada.” — Citizen Lab report

Within a day of the report’s publication, a Microsoft spokeswoman said the company responded to the issue, telling The Wall Street Journal, “A small number of users may have experienced a misconfiguration that prevented surfacing some valid autosuggest terms, and we thank Citizen Lab for bringing this to our attention.”

Why it matters: The report raises questions about the potentially international reach of Chinese official censorship and its infamous Great Firewall, which attempts to clamp down on internet discussions that Beijing considers harmful.

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What does the Citizen Lab report say?

Research methodology: Citizen Lab’s analysis found that, other than the search query that the user has typed so far, at least three variables affect the autosuggestions provided by Bing: the user’s region setting, language setting, and geolocation as determined by the user’s IP address. Using these factors, the researchers typed in bilingual (English and Mandarin) searches for a variety of people, terms and topics, cross referenced across multiple regions, some of them in mainland China, others in North America. Depending on the lack of autosuggestions and search results, the queries were categorised into four categories.

  • Chinese political refers to queries specifically mentioning Chinese political figures, themes and events.
  • Eroticism covers names that have an erotic double meaning or pornographic conotations.
  • Overshadowed cites those results which have been overshadowed by more famous alternatives with similar names.
  • Collaterals are searches who are collateral damage to the censorship enforced in the other three categories.

The report notes that the “overshadowed” and “collateral” categories did not appear to be targeted for censorship.

Conclusions: In nearly every locale the researchers tested, censored Chinese character names were most likely to belong to the “Chinese political” category, whereas censored English letter names were more likely to belong to the “eroticism” category, although each locale also censored “Chinese political” English letter names such as “Xi Jinping”, “Liu Xiaobo”, “Tiananmen Square” and “Tank Man”. The report also notes that in each region the names censored by Chinese political censorship varied over time.

The report found that the most common reason for a name being “collaterally” censored was containing the name “Dick”, such as former US vice president Dick Cheney. Other names and terms to be censored were those of pornographic performers and curse words.

Microsoft’s censorship also affects DuckDuckGo and Yahoo

“In addition to web usage, Bing also sees usage through its integration into multiple Microsoft products and through other search engines which use its data,” the report states.

Since Windows 8.1, Bing has been built into the Windows start menu, providing autosuggestions and search results for queries searched using the Windows start menu search functionality.

Bing is also the default search engine in Microsoft Edge, Microsoft’s cross-platform, Chromium-based web browser. In fact, Bing’s Chinese political autosuggestion censorship also applies to DuckDuckGo and Yahoo, which use Bing autosuggestion data.

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DuckDuckGo, which is billed as a privacy-protecting search engine, actually has a close working relationship with Microsoft. CEO Gabriel Weinberg has claimed that with non-search tracker blocking, DuckDuckGo blocks most third-party trackers except those belonging to Microsoft. Although, the browser’s policy states that when you load their search results, you are completely anonymous from ads, even Microsoft Advertising cannot profile you.

DuckDuckGo’s privacy issues go deeper than ad anonymity. Its agreement with Microsoft prevents it from blocking cross-site tracking requests from the IT giant and the secret data flow rule created for Microsoft to collect on non-MSFT domains.

Microsoft and Big Tech criticised over censorship allegations

“If Microsoft had never engaged in Chinese censorship operations in the first place, there would be no way for them to spill into other regions.” — Jeffrey Knockel, senior research associate, Citizen Lab, to The Wall Street Journal.

While other major American tech companies such as Facebook and Twitter have decided to stay out of China because of their refusal to comply with strict censorship rules, Microsoft has continued to do business there. This has led to frequent accusations that the company is acquiescing to censorship demands, including on LinkedIn, which began operating in China for seven years starting 2014. In the past, the company has been found blocking the profiles of US journalists in China due to “prohibited content” on their profiles.

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In 2021, Bing had blocked searches for “tank man,” the nickname for a Tiananmen Square protestor. It claimed that the block was due to “accidental error.”

Microsoft is hardly the only tech company grappling with allegations of censorship.

  • Apple has been widely criticised for censoring its App Store in China, among other reported privacy concessions such as storing customer data on Chinese government servers, using government recommended encryption technology for customer data, sharing customer data with the government, proactively removing apps offensive to the Communist Party and approving almost all of the authorities’ app-takedown requests.
  • Google, too, has a contentious relationship with the Chinese government, having pulled its search engine from the country in 2010, yet still continuing to license its Android software that powers most of the phones there. In 2018, the search giant revealed Project Dragonfly, a censored search engine for China. Google’s employees objected to the project for enabling censorship, promoting disinformation and establishing a precedent that would make it harder for Google to deny other countries similar concessions. Google terminated the project in 2019.
  • Xiaomi devices were accused by Lithuania’s Defence Ministry of having the built-in ability to detect and censor terms like “Free Tibet”, “Women’s Committee”, and “Long live Taiwan’s independence” in September 2021. However, Germany’s Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) on January 13, 2022, said that it has found no evidence of censorship capabilities in Xiaomi phones.

Citizen Lab’s latest report on Microsoft follows a previous report that found Apple censored engravings for products in China and Hong Kong. Citizen Lab is affiliated with the University of Toronto and has been able to identify threats against free expression, such as the Pegasus spyware operations that targeted activists, journalists and politicians across the world.

In India, the Pegasus row has reached the top level of judiciary with the Supreme Court launching an investigation to check whether the government had used Pegasus to spy on the activists jailed in the Bhima Koregaon case.

This post is released under a CC-BY-SA 4.0 license. Please feel free to republish on your site, with attribution and a link. Adaptation and rewriting, though allowed, should be true to the original.

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