Bing practicing Chinese censorship globally

Much has been made about China extending its influence in media beyond her borders. But we have seen limited instances of China convincing overseas media companies to censor China-related information for those outside of mainland China.

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.

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.

We reached out to Microsoft with our test results. We also directly asked the company if the results were due to a technical glitch or error. Microsoft replied with: “no comment at this time”.

It is worthwhile to note that Microsoft is a member of the Global Network Initiative, “a multi-stakeholder group of companies, NGOs, investors and academics” working to advance freedom of expression. One of the group’s principles states:

Freedom of opinion and expression is a human right and guarantor of human dignity. The right to freedom of opinion and expression includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

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?

In defending the removal of search results inside of China, Bing has made its position clear:  

When approached with a request for removal of displayed search results by a governmental entity, we require proof of the applicable law. If we are required to implement the request, we will do so narrowly.

It is doubtful that Bing’s censorship in China has been implemented in strict accordance with Chinese law. In most instances, censorship has likely occurred at the request of government officials.

We challenge Bing to show us the “proof of the applicable law” which government officials feel is being broken from amongst our test results as well as an illustration of how Bing feel they are “narrowly implementing” the request.

But whose law is dictating the manipulation of search results for Americans who are using Bing in the United States? Or French who are using Bing in France?

The different versions of Bing

Bing.com: International version. Server in U.S.  Default language English. Supports multiple languages including Chinese.

China Bing: Official name: 必应 Server in U.S. Localized version. Contains Chinese news and links to popular Chinese websites. Default language Chinese. Supports multiple languages including English.

The distinctions between the versions are triggered by cookies stored on users’ computers, not through different domain names. For example, a simple search can be conducted on Bing or China Bing depending on your computer’s settings.

China Bing will censor results if the site is accessed from within China. We disapprove of this practice but find it understandable given stringent internet controls.

Below you can see the search results for “自由微博” (FreeWeibo) on Bing when accessed from the U.S. As you can see, at the bottom of the page, Bing states that “Some results have been removed”. Indeed, our homepage “freeweibo.com” is nowhere to be found. When conducting the same search on Google, our homepage is the first result.

We also found that Bing will sometimes use this vague notice or no notice at all to refer to censorship by the government authorities, even though Bing also has a more explicit version of its censorship notice.

We also searched on China Bing from the U.S. The server for China Bing is located in the U.S. As both the server and the user are located outside of China, Microsoft should have no reason to practice self-censorship. But in practice, this censorship notice is displayed: “Due to legal obligations imposed by Chinese laws and regulations, we have removed specific results for these search terms. For more information, please see here.”.

The unusual results could be the result of a technical misconfiguration on the part of Microsoft. We reached out to the company to see if this was indeed the case and they sent us this answer:

Thanks for your inquiry. We have no comment on this topic.

Assuming it was a technical problem, Microsoft should have admitted to this. However, this is clearly not a technical problem. How many concessions will Microsoft give the Chinese government? Will Microsoft go so far as to remove all references and links to the Tiananmen Square massacre on all versions of Bing, no matter where you are in the world?

Our findings indicate:

  1. We found that Bing has some level of censorship even for users in the United States. More specifically, we ask why Microsoft is censoring search results for Bing when accessed within and outside of China and China Bing when accessed from outside of China? (We can understand why China Bing might be forced to censor within China.)

  2. Bing is not transparent with its censorship notices. Bing sometimes uses “Some results have been removed” or no notice at all instead of “Due to legal obligations imposed by Chinese laws and regulations, we have removed specific results for these search terms.” This is an important distinction to make because in some instances the removal of results is at the request of the Chinese government and in other instances removal can result from copyright infringement or other similar reasons. With clear messaging, users of Bing can thus 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.

In the screenshot below, when searching “site:dongtaiwang.com” on Bing.com in China a user will see a vague notice from Bing. But this site has traditionally been heavily censored on the orders of the Chinese government.


  1. Bing has stated: “When approached with a request for removal of displayed search results by a governmental entity, we require proof of the applicable law. If we are required to implement the request, we will do so narrowly.” We challenge Bing to show us the “proof of the applicable law” which government officials feel is being broken in this instance as well as an illustration of how they are “narrowly implementing” the request.

  2. We call for Microsoft to release their transparency report on the removal of search results from Bing worldwide, including their findings from China.

Detailed experiments

Explanation of search terms.

自由微博 FreeWeibo: Our website that offers uncensored and anonymous Sina Weibo search.

达赖喇嘛: Dalai Lama

自由门 FreeGate: A popular internet circumvention tool.

六四事件June 4th incident: Refers to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

site:freeweibo.com: This search will find any web pages within the domain freeweibo.com.

The location in the chart below refers to the user’s location.

Both Bing versions support multi-language and we found no difference between languages within the same version. For example, China Bing in Italian will display the censorship notice in Italian, but the search results are subject to the same level of censorship.  We used the HTTPS version of Bing in order to avoid a connection reset error from China’s great firewall. We found no difference between HTTPS and HTTP in terms of content.

Search Terms

International Bing in U.S

China Bing in U.S

International Bing in China

China Bing in China

自由微博

(FreeWeibo) *

Results heavily censored. Generic removal notice.

Results heavily censored. Partial censorship notice .

Results heavily censored. Generic removal notice.

Results heavily censored. Partial censorship notice.

达赖喇嘛

(Dalai Lama)

Results heavily censored.
No censorship notice.

Results heavily censored.
No censorship notice.

Results heavily censored. Generic removal notice.

Results heavily censored. Partial censorship notice.

自由门

(Freegate)

Results normal. No censorship notice.

No results. Complete censorship notice.

No results. Complete censorship notice.

No results. Complete censorship notice.

六四事件

(June 4th incident)

Results normal. No censorship notice.

Results normal. No censorship notice.

Few results. Generic removal notice.

Few results. Partial censorship notice.

site:freeweibo .com

FreeWeibo index not in the result. Generic removal notice.*

FreeWeibo index not in the result.
Partial censorship notice.

FreeWeibo index not in the result.
Generic removal
notice.

FreeWeibo index not in the result.
Partial censorship notice.

site:nytimes .com

Results normal. No censorship notice.

Results normal. No censorship notice.

Some results. Generic removal notice.

Some results. Partial censorship notice.

site:dongtaiwang .com

Results normal. No censorship notice.

Results normal. No censorship notice.

Few results. Generic removal notice.

Few results. Partial censorship notice.

* No results from our FreeWeibo official website: freeweibo.com.  If you search freeweibo in English on Internatinoal Bing in U.S, our index won't show up either even though there are no censorship notices on the first page.

It is interesting to note that among the websites listed above, FreeWeibo.com is subjected to the most censorship of the searches that we tested. You can find information about a certain June 4 incident if you search in Chinese from a U.S. IP address (for now), but you will find little information about FreeWeibo. Even some traditionally heavily censored search results, for instance, the “Falun Gong”, appear. So why is FreeWeibo being targeted?

We can see above that FreeWeibo gets the same treatment in China as it does in the rest of the world whereas the other sites we tested, save for one, experience strict censorship in China and less censorship abroad. The chart above shows that there is clear censorship of search results in the U.S. for 自由门 (FreeGate, a popular Internet circumvention tool).

Our point on ambiguous messaging from Bing is also clearly illustrated above. If you are using Bing.com in China you are sometimes simply told that search results have been removed whereas if you search on China Bing from China, you are often told that search results have been removed according to legal obligations in China.

What is not ambiguous is how Bing is practicing subtle censorship of its search results. When searching for “达赖喇嘛” (Dalai Lama) on Bing in the U.S., most results come from news portals in China that portray him in a negative way. There are no censorship notices. If you search “达赖喇嘛” (Dalai Lama) on Bing in China, the results are exactly the same as those in the U.S but with partial censorship notice.

But the same search on Google returns an entirely different picture. The discrepancy might be caused by a ranking algorithm, but the contrast between search results on Bing and Google is too big to be attributable to a random error.

We encourage you to test the results yourself.

Appendix

These are some of the censorship notices you will see in the Chinese version of Bing

Generic removal notice

Some results have been removed

某些结果已被删除

Partial censorship notice

Due to legal obligations imposed by Chinese laws and regulations, we have removed specific results for these search terms. For more information, please see here.

依据中国的法律法规,我们屏蔽了特定的相关搜索结果。有关详细信息,请参阅此处。

Complete censorship notice

Due to legal obligations imposed by Chinese laws and regulations, we have removed the results for these search terms. For more information, please see here.

由于中国法律法规的限制,我们删除了这些搜索词的结果。有关详细信息,请参阅此处。

 

Help article on International Bing (English/Chinese), on China Bing (English/Chinese)

* If SafeSearch is turned off, Bing will still display the same results page, i.e. the FreeWeibo index is not shown.

For Bing in the U.S., SafeSearch is set on its default level, defined as:  “Moderate - filter adult images and videos but not text from your search results.” These settings should therefore not impact our text search results. If we search “porn” with that setting, adult results will be returned but also with the notice “Some results have been removed”.

For international Bing in China and China Bing in the U.S. or China, SafeSearch is set by default to “Strict: Filter out adult text, images, and videos from your search results” and cannot be changed.

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Wed, Mar 19, 2014

Bing Bests Baidu Censorship

Abstract

Independent research from Xia Chu has shown that, in addition to non-China content, Bing censors a vast amount of content that is hosted inside China and which is not censored by China-based internet companies like Baidu. After communicating our issues with Microsoft, Bing removed certain censorship rules (kudos to Bing), but much work remains to be done.

We recently called for Microsoft to release its transparency report for Bing (as have others - full disclosure, Rebecca sits on our advisory board).  Microsoft has yet to respond to this request. But Xia’s independent research of Bing’s China censorship policy could be regarded as a de facto transparency report for the search engine.

In this thorough study, the results of which we have verified, Xia examined Bing's SERP (search engine results page) for over 30,000 sensitive and nonsensitive query terms, and launched these queries from both inside and outside of China. Comparing and examining these results, plus querying with special search operators, reveals unprecedented detail on Bing's China filtering practices.

The main findings from Xia’s research include:

  • Bing has a list of “forbidden” terms where no results are shown. 139 such terms have been identified.

  • Bing has a blacklist of websites that it never shows to China users. 329 such websites are identified. (5 have been lifted after our communication with Microsoft.)

Thu, Feb 13, 2014

Setting Bing's Broken Record Straight

We can also now trace complicit Bing Chinese censorship back to 2009 as highlighted by Nicholas Kristof. It looks like Microsoft has indeed changed its censorship mechanism after our research made headlines this week. But Bing is still seriously flawed on two fronts: its algorithm favors pro-Chinese government websites by default on all search terms in simplified Chinese and their front end mistakenly delivers explicit censorship of search results on some search terms for users from all over the world.

Wed, Feb 12, 2014

No error here: Microsoft deploying Chinese censorship on global scale

Microsoft says: “The results themselves are and were unaltered outside of China”. This is simply not true.

Thu, Jan 23, 2014

Massive blocking of foreign media in China

After Tuesday’s report Leaked Records Reveal Offshore Holdings of China’s Elite by ICIJ, China blocked a number of major newspaper websites. All websites below were blocked after publishing copies of the original report. They're all listed as the publishing partners for “Chinaleaks” stories on ICIJ's website. The Great Firewall rarely blocks non-Chinese websites. Many of them have published the Chinese version of the report which probably explains the unusual development.

Newspaper

Main Language

Article

http://www.icij.org

English

Chinese

http://www.theguardian.com

English

Wed, Jan 22, 2014

Internet outage in China on Jan 21

Yesterday we witnessed one of the largest Internet outages ever in China. We have three theories about why this outage may have occurred - two related to the Falun Gong but our third theory is that the Chinese authorities set out to attack our unblockable mirror websites.

From 15:30 to 16:30 (China time) on January 21, DNS lookup to any domain would incorrectly resolve to 65.49.2.178. Websites inside and outside of China were affected. Even Baidu and Sina were inaccessible. Only software using IP directly (e.g. QQ, VPNs) worked during that time. Attempts to visit any website redirected to http://65.49.2.178, which didn’t respond during that time.  The overwhelming traffic to this IP likely crashed the server.

Timeline

Event

15:15

GFW DNS poisoning begins. First recorded instance.

15:17

Local DNS servers began to cache incorrect responses. Some large websites in China began to be affected e.g Sina Weibo.

 

Incorrect DNS continue to spread through Chinese DNS servers. Major websites including Baidu, Sina affected.

15:39

DNS poisoning lifted by GFW. But local DNS resolvers cached incorrect responses. Users continued to experience outage.

16:00

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Comments

I'm very sympathetic to your concerns regarding possible censorship of search results by Bing. However, I tried to replicate your tests and was able to retrieve a normal results page (i.e., one that prominently features your site) when searching for "freeweibo". I have not accessed Bing from China on this browser, and I wonder whether the filtering you are seeing only occurs on computers that have accessed Bing from China, setting preferences in cookies. You might test this by removing cookies from a machine and trying the test again. It would still be very disappointing that Bing would restrict results by assuming "once in China, always in China". But I worry your current article may be somewhat confusing, as most users of Bing will be able to get unfiltered results for a search for "freeweibo" from within the US.

@Zuckerman,Thank you for your response.

You were "able to retrieve a normal results page". The result page is not normal because our index page freeweibo.com or any page in Chinese is not shown.  To illustrate our point better, we have updated the chart and and use 自由微博 (FreeWeibo in Chinese) instead. 

About the cookie problem you mentioned, we tested in private browsing mode and existing cookie isn't the problem here.

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