Microsoft Accused of Search Censorship Beyond China

Censorship monitor GreatFire.org has accused Microsoft’s Bing search engine of censoring results for sensitive terms including “Dalai Lama,” even for users outside China. Other terms, such as “June 4th Incident,” are unaffected.

Our latest research indicates that Microsoft’s search engine Bing is censoring English and Chinese language search on its home page in order to exclude certain results. We have also noticed that Bing is practicing subtle censorship with search results. In both instances, Bing is filtering out links and stories that the Chinese authorities would deem damaging.

[…] Our tests indicate that Microsoft has decided that its customers around the world, “regardless of frontiers”, need not know the entire truth about China. If this practice continues, China will move one step closer to cleansing the internet of information it does not want the rest of the world to know about.

This development also begs other questions. If China is able to control access to information in the United States, what other information is Bing keeping from its customers? Who else is setting the agenda for information flow in the United States? Who sets the agenda for Bing in the UK? In other markets? [Source]

GreatFire’s Charlie Smith commented in the FreeWeibo email newsletter:

The implications of this type of censorship are, frankly, mind boggling. We have seen that China may be effective at convincing foreign media to tone down their negative coverage of China (oftentimes in exchange for market access). But it is rare to see China interfering with what foreigners, living on foreign soil and using a foreign website, read about China.

[…] This is the kind of story that begets a congressional hearing. We are 100% sure our findings indicate that Microsoft is cleansing search results in the United States to remove negative news and information about China. And they are doing this in every market in which they operate in the world. More than one government will take notice. And others will be asking – what other influential players are encouraging Microsoft to cleanse search? What information is being held back from customers? [Source]

Microsoft did not respond to requests for comment from GreatFire.org, The Guardian, or Quartz.

The Los Angeles Times’ Julie Makinen reported last week on the more common compromises made by tech companies within China. In Apple’s case, this has long included blocking Tibet, Xinjiang and censorship-related software from its App Store, but as Makinen notes, the concessions extend to custom engraving on the back of devices:

Say you type in the Dalai Lama’s name in Chinese characters into Apple’s online store engraving service. You’ll receive a yellow pop-up box saying, “The engraved text is not suitable.” Other phrases that return the same error notice include “Tibet independence,” “Xinjiang independence” and “Taiwan independence.” (“America independence” is permitted.)

And if you happen to share your name with Liu Xiaobo, the jailed 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner, you’re also out of luck if you want those three characters etched into your device.

Apple has long rejected a number of vulgarities on its U.S. engraving service. Asked about forbidden language in mainland China, Apple Inc. spokeswoman Carolyn Wu said, “We comply with local laws and requirements around the world.”

[… T]he restrictions on iPad engravings may be regarded as trivial. Yet the rejected messages illustrate how China’s censorship efforts extend deep into the mundane nooks and crannies of everyday life and commerce. [Source]