Bing has hidden auto-suggestions for politically sensitive Chinese names, even in the US

Microsoft has left invisible roadblocks for web searches involving names of people deemed politically sensitive by the Chinese government – and not just in China, but in the United States and Canada, according to a team of Canadian researchers.

This investigation(Opens in a new window) by the citizen laboratory(Opens in a new window)a group based at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, has identified a tendency for Microsoft’s Bing search engine to silence auto-suggestions for queries involving “party leaders, dissidents and other people considered politically sensitive in China”.

The main conclusion of the report: “We have consistently found that Bing censors politically sensitive Chinese names over time, that their censorship covers multiple Chinese political topics, consists of at least two languages, English and Chinese, and applies to different regions of the world, including China, the United States and Canada.

The Citizen Lab report is based on research conducted in December from Chinese and North American networks, using research in English and Chinese as well as that of Microsoft. Keyword Research API(Opens in a new window).

Citizen Lab found that after names related to pornography and nudity, the second most common auto-suggestion removal involved Chinese political figures, either government leaders like authoritarian President Xi Jinping, or Li Wen Liang(Opens in a new window)the doctor who tried to warn colleagues in late 2019 about the growing novel coronavirus pandemic, was denounced by police as a troublemaker and died of COVID in February 2020.

The Citizen Lab report found that entering some or all of these names produced no auto-suggestion results, even in the US and Canada. It also affected queries in DuckDuckGo and Yahoo, which each rely heavily on Bing’s search index; the three research sites combined for just over 12% of the US market in April(Opens in a new window).

North American users, however, can still press Enter for a full set of results.

(This report also contains this reminder that any automated content filtering remains delicate: “We found that the most common reason for a name being collaterally censored was the presence of the name ‘Dick’, for example, ‘Dick Cheney.’ “)

Citizen Lab — which has uncovered numerous instances of government interference in online services, such as an August 2020 report documenting China’s removal of pandemic-related keywords from domestic social media — calls it a consequence of a company trying to operate and conform to both democracies and oppressive regimes. Its report puts it in bold: “An internet platform cannot facilitate free speech for one demographic of its users while applying broad political censorship against another demographic of its users.”

Microsoft responded to Citizen Lab’s questions with an email from May 17(Opens in a new window) which stated that he could not reproduce most of the results, but had found “a technical error”, now corrected, which “sometimes prevented certain valid autosuggestion terms from appearing”.

Microsoft sent us the same statement, which adds: “In general, the auto-suggestions that someone sees are largely based on the query itself and largely driven by user behavior, similar to the queries that other local users are looking for. Don’t see an auto-suggestion – the suggestion doesn’t mean it’s been blocked.”

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In an incognito window in Chrome on Friday morning, typing “xi j” in Bing and DuckDuckGo yielded auto-suggest results like “xi jinping net worth,” but typing some or all of “li wenliang” still didn’t. nothing given. Meanwhile, both searches in a Google incognito session brought up the usual auto-suggestions.

The Chinese Communist Party’s aggressive censorship of online services led Microsoft to shut down LinkedIn there and kept Google out of that country (although it was developing a censored search site in the Chinese market before employee protests and other American critics only lead him to end this effort in 2019).

Independent assessments rank China among the least free countries on Earth. Freedom House gives it a “freedom score” of 9 out of 100(Opens in a new window)and Reporters Without Borders classifies it 175th out of 180 governments(Opens in a new window) for press freedoms.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with Microsoft’s statement.

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