It is pretty commonplace for foreign media firms to censor sensitive content in China, given the country’s stringent Internet controls. However, the latest research from Chinese Web monitoring service GreatFire claims that Microsoft’s search engine Bing is censoring China-related information not only within the country’s boundaries, but worldwide.

UPDATE: Stefan Weitz, the senior director of Bing, tells TNW that the search engine has carried out an investigation of the claims raised by GreatFire. The removal of certain search results has been credited to a technical error in the system, while the absence of the Freeweibo.com homepage in the search results was because the page had been marked as inappropriate due to ‘low quality or adult’ content. It has now been rectified though. Weitz’s full statement can be seen here.

We’ve conducted an investigation of the claims raised by Greatfire.org.

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.

Second, with regard to the freeweibo.com homepage being absent from Bing search results, our investigation indicates that at some time in the past the page was marked as inappropriate due to low quality or adult.  After review, we have determined the page is acceptable for inclusion in global search results.

Bing aims to provide a robust set of high-quality, relevant search results to our users.  In doing so, Bing has extremely high standards that respect human rights, privacy and freedom of expression.

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.

SECOND UPDATE: In response to Microsoft’s statement, GreatFire insists it made no error in its research and says that “Microsoft has failed to address our point on the censorship policy for international Bing in China.” It also called for Microsoft to release a transparency report for Bing, worldwide, and urged Microsoft to “do the right thing and stand up to Chinese censorship. Microsoft has responded to the allegations in a post.

Our original story follows.

After running tests, the GreatFire team found that Bing is censoring English and Chinese-language search queries by excluding certain results or imposing subtle censorship through its search results. This essentially means that Bing filters out links and stories which could be judged as negative by Chinese authorities, GreatFire says.

Interestingly, GreatFire notes that “Bing has some level of censorship even for users in the United States.”

A quick test on both the Singapore sites of Google and Bing using the search term “Site:FreeWeibo.com” — a service run by GreatFire which displays content censored on Twitter-like microblogging platform Sina Weibo — showed a pretty marked difference between the top results that were displayed.

Screen shot 2014 02 12 at AM 10.06.07 730x330 Update: Microsoft says changes to China related Bing searches were an error, not censorship

 

Screen shot 2014 02 12 at AM 10.06.21 Update: Microsoft says changes to China related Bing searches were an error, not censorship

As can be seen, Google displays the Freeweibo homepage as its first result, while Bing displays the Decrypt Weibo tool, skipping the homepage — which is where all the censored content from Sina Weibo shows up. This could be interpreted as a subtle censorship process on the part of Bing.

GreatFire says that it considered the possibility of a technical glitch contributing to such search results, but notes that Microsoft declined to comment. The group offered its own explanation for why Bing would be censoring its search results.

China has a long history of censoring information inside China that is “harmful to the state”. The country also understands the steps that businesses are willing to take to turn a profit in China. It is likely that these two factors combined led the Chinese government to demand that Microsoft implement their censorship tactics outside of China.

GreatFire notes that Bing is also not consistent with its censorship notices, at times using “Some results have been removed” instead of “Due to legal obligations imposed by Chinese laws and regulations, we have removed specific results for these search terms.” The group says this is an “important distinction” to provide to Bing users, so they can “come to their own conclusion as to why information is being withheld from them and can at least have a small window of transparency onto the inner workings of the censorship machine.”

On its help page, Bing notes that some countries have laws or regulations applying to search service providers that require the removal of access to certain information, due to geopolitical purposes or cultural norms. It says:

We must integrate our support for freedom of access to information by people of all countries with required compliance that allows us to offer the search services in a specific jurisdiction. When approached with a request for removal of displayed search results by a governmental entity, we require proof of the applicable law and authority of the government agency, and an official request to require removal.

However, it isn’t clear whether China’s laws and regulations would really extend to outside of the country — and it is thus worrying that GreatFire’s latest research shows Bing may not be aligning itself with its declarations of transparency and may be censoring more than what it’s lawfully required to.

Furthermore, this comes after recent GreatFire research suggested Microsoft had taken a step forward with its Skype service in China by taking measures to remove mechanisms that allow for spying on users and their activity. 

We have reached out to Microsoft for comment and will update with any response provided.

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