Microsoft Bing has exported Chinese censorship abroad, according to a new report by The University of Toronto's Citizen Lab.
Bing searches for national figures, leaders within the Chinese Communist Party, dissidents and topics that Beijing considers politically sensitive did not appear in auto-suggest in North America, according to the report. Among the search terms that didn't generate autocomplete suggestions were searches for President Xi Jinping, the late human rights activist Liu Xiaobo and searches related to the Tiananmen Square massacre.
“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,” the report said.
In response, a spokesperson for Microsoft told The Wall Street Journal said the results were unintentional. “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,” the spokesperson said.
The report raises questions about the long reach of Chinese official censorship and its infamous Great Firewall, which clamps down on discussions Beijing considers destructive. "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, a senior research associate at Citizen Lab, told the 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. That has led to frequent accusations that the company is acquiescing to censorship demands, including on LinkedIn, which began operating in China in 2014. In the past, the company has been found blocking the profiles of U.S. journalists in China due to "prohibited content" in their profiles.
Last year, however, the company announced that LinkedIn would be pulling out of China, citing what it described as "greater compliance requirements." In its place, the company said it would launch a stripped-down job seeking site that did not include LinkedIn's social features.
In an interview with Protocol last year, LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman discussed that decision, saying, "[The] conflicts between society, Western society and China try to put you in the crossfire. Between them, you end up in a lot of controversy when you're trying to navigate this line."