Setting Bing's Broken Record Straight

Bing Senior Director Stefan Weitz has responded to our second post about censorship. We can also now trace complicit Bing Chinese censorship back to 2009 as highlighted by Nicholas Kristof in his piece “Boycott Microsoft Bing”. Bing at that time, in a eerily similar blog post, blamed an error for Chinese censorship of image search.

Microsoft has put itself in a difficult position with regards to how it manages the fallout over this issue. They have obviously decided that Chinese business interests trump international success for Bing. Many have cynically pointed out that few people use Bing. But Bing is deeply integrated within the universe of Microsoft and this censorship will likely trickle down to affect user experience from Skype to Outlook to the Xbox.

We have already addressed the arguments that Weitz makes in the first two paragraphs of his blog post. Weitz makes new points in his latest response:

We understand that with casual inspection, users may be concerned about censorship when seeing the ‘removal notification’ message intended for users in China and some difference in results between Chinese language and English language searches, but again we can confirm this is not the case. The wrong notification message is simply being displayed in limited circumstances, and we are in the process of fixing that issue.

It looks like Microsoft has indeed changed its censorship mechanism after our research made headlines this week. Now a search for “达赖喇嘛” (Dalai Lama) in the U.S. will bring up a censorship notice while before there was none. The search results, however, are still censored. To prevent Microsoft from issuing a denial of our search results, we took screenshots from our research. You can see a comparison of the results in two screen grabs. Search results before our research was published appear on the right hand side and search results after Bing was publicly taken to task appear on the left. Results for a search for “达赖喇嘛” (Dalai Lama) on international Bing and China Bing illustrate that Microsoft has indeed made a change to Bing this week.

 

International Bing in U.S

(after publication)

International Bing in U.S

(before publication)

China Bing in U.S

(after publication)

China Bing in U.S

(before publication)

达赖喇嘛

Heavily censored.

Generic removal notice.

Heavily censored.

No censorship notice.

Heavily censored.

Partial censorship notice

Heavily censored.

No censorship notice.

Weitz further argues:

It has been noted that some popular sites such as Facebook are at times not shown in China. The fact that results from such sites are shown in Bing outside of China when using the Chinese language is an easy way for anyone to quickly reassure themselves that the results are not being censored.

This is completely false. Below is a screenshot from a search for  “自由微博” (FreeWeibo) on China Bing from China which is subject to the strictest form of censorship (this search will also produce a censorship notice in the U.S). You can see the partial censorship notice and our homepage freeweibo.com is indeed not shown. However, the first result is from our official Facebook page (although do note that Facebook is blocked by the great firewall (GFW)). Even if Facebook is listed in the results page, as in the case of searching for “自由微博” (FreeWeibo) from the U.S, it does not indicate that the search results are uncensored.


Weitz also writes:

The reason results are different for Chinese and English queries however, is because searches in different languages are fundamentally different queries. A result may show lower in one language versus another for a variety of reasons, such as fewer users choosing that link in English results compared to users who searched in another language. As always, however, we are constantly evaluating how to deliver the best results to our customers around the world.

Of course, searching in different languages are completely different search queries. But we not merely comparing search results in different languages. We compared the same search term in simplified Chinese in both Bing and Google and found that most results on Bing come from Chinese controlled media while Google presents foreign media, independent sites as well as media from China.

We have also conducted tests in traditional Chinese. We found no censorship with traditional Chinese search when searching on International Bing in the U.S. Results come from independent sites. Upon further examination we found that most of these websites have a simplified Chinese version of the site as well as a traditional version (see dalailamaworld.com).

Furthermore, simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese characters are similar and are perfectly machine translatable. If Bing can identify search results in traditional Chinese, what is preventing them from including similar results in simplified Chinese search? The example below shows that Bing is capable of producing related results in simplified Chinese but have explicitly chosen not to.

 

International Bing in U.S

China Bing in U.S

International Bing in China

China Bing in China

達賴喇嘛*

(Dalai Lama in Traditional Chinese)

Results normal.

Generic removal notice.

Censored.
Partial censorship notice.

Results normal.

Generic removal notice.

Censored.
Partial censorship notice.

* We use “+達賴喇嘛” in the search bar to prevent China Bing from auto-correcting our search term to simplified Chinese.

We will also take this opportunity to address some common comments on perceived flaws in our research. One common retort, notably not from any Bing representative, states:

All that proves is that Google uses different search algorithms than Bing. The article compares Chinese language search results in Bing and Google and uses the difference as "proof" of censorship.

Bing’s algorithm might be part of the problem, as we mentioned in our original report:

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.

If this is true, then we can conclude that Bing’s algorithm is systematically assigning a low ranking or even excluding reports from foreign media and favoring Chinese state-controlled news and information portals.

The rising importance of China has meant that many foreign media websites have started to publish reports in (simplified) Chinese, for a Chinese audience. It is true that Chinese netizens might gravitate, out of habit, first to Chinese news organizations if presented with the option to visit People’s Daily vs. the BBC. But so many foreign media web sites are publishing information in Chinese (including VOA Chinese, FT Chinese, RFA Chinese and independent Tibetan sites publishing in Chinese) that it is hard to believe that they do not appear in search results.

Do search algorithms take into account websites that are blocked in China? This just might be the most prudent way for Bing to uphold Chinese censorship and to absolve themselves from blame. Bing’s Chinese search algorithm might be placing far more emphasis on websites hosted in China and thus controlled by the government and putting less emphasis on websites hosted abroad including foreign media and independent sites even though they are written in Chinese.

If this is true, then Bing is 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.

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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.)

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.

Tue, Feb 11, 2014

Bing practicing Chinese censorship globally

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.

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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