Bing’s Chinese-language censorship balls-up is huge PR disaster

origin_557760200Microsoft has been accused of censoring Bing’s Chinese-language search results for people in the US, in the same way that it does for those based in China, according to activists.

The claims were made by The Guardian newspaper, which said that several activist blogs had reported seeing very different results on Bing for queries made in Chinese, as opposed to those made in English. Searching for controversial terms such as “Dalai Lama”, “June 4 protests” and “Falun Gong”, among others, throws up pages for organizations and groups that are allied with the Chinese government, whilst similar searches in English are very different, and much less pro-China.

The Guardian reports:

“Searches first conducted by anti-censorship campaigners at FreeWeibo, a tool that allows uncensored search of Chinese blogs, found that Bing returns radically different results in the US for English and Chinese language searches on a series of controversial terms.”

“A Chinese language search for the Dalai Lama (达赖喇嘛) on Bing is lead by a link to information on a documentary compiled by CCTV, China’s state-owned broadcaster. This is followed by two entries from Baidu Baike, China’s heavily censored Wikipedia rival run by the search engine Baidu. The results are similar on Yahoo, whose search is powered by Bing.”

The Guardian carried out a similar experiment on Google Search, and found that ‘controversial’ terms returned similar results in both languages.

Not surprisingly, Microsoft was quick to deny that Bing’s been censoring it’s search results, saying that the discrepancies were due to an “error” in its system:

“We’ve conducted an investigation of the claims raised by,” said Stefan Weitz, Senior Director Bing, in a statement to Business Insider:

“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.”

“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.”

Most likely it was indeed an error – it seems unlikely that Microsoft would risk its reputation just to cozy up to China. After all, Bing is rarely used by Chinese netizens and it lags well behind Google in the global search market stakes. Even if Bing does have ambitions to become a bigger player in China by appeasing its authorities, whatever hopes it has of catching Google in the rest of the world would be dead and buried if its credibility came under scrutiny.

Even so, this is one almighty PR goof for Microsoft. Whilst Google and other tech firms have been guilty of making questionable compromises with China’s authorities in the past over services within China, kow-towing to these demands outside of China is an unforgivable betrayal – even if it’s all just one big misunderstanding.

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