Microsoft-owned search engine Bing is targeting politically sensitive Chinese names for censorship in the United States, according to research.
Citizen Lab, a cyber research center at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, found that the censorship applied to Bing’s autosuggestion feature. Moreover, it impacts not only Bing but also the Windows Start menu search and DuckDuckGo, which share this same feature.
“We consistently found that Bing censors politically sensitive Chinese names over time, that their censorship spans multiple Chinese political topics, [and] consists of at least two languages, English and Chinese,” Citizen Lab stated in the report released on May 19.
“It applies to different world regions, including China, the United States, and Canada,” it added.
The cyber group found that up to 93.8 percent of Bing searches involving names in Chinese characters that were “Chinese political” were subjected to censorship in the United States.
Specifically, the censorship applied to names of Chinese leaders, including incumbent Chinese leader Xi Jinping and former ones; dissidents; political activists, and religious figures.
For example, among the names found blocked in both the United States and Canada was former Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli who had the highest search traffic on Bing among all the censored names.
This is likely due to Zhang being thrown in the spotlight when Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai late last year alleged that the former official sexually assaulted her, allegations which led to a weeks-long disappearance of the tennis player.
Chinese names in English were also censored. One of the most censored names was that
of the late Chinese doctor Li Wenliang, the whistleblower ophthalmologist who first warned his colleagues about early COVID-19 infections in Wuhan before the regime official acknowledged the outbreak, according to the report.
Citizen Lab released its findings following reports last June that Microsoft’s Bing blocked image searches for “Tank Man”—the iconic photo of the unidentified Chinese man who stood in front of a column of tanks in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre—in the United States, France, and Singapore.
The Tech giant at the time blamed the incident on “accidental human error.” It provided a similar explanation to Citizen Lab’s findings
“We addressed a technical error where a small number of users may have experienced a misconfiguration that prevented surfacing some valid autosuggest terms and we thank Citizen Labs for bringing this to our attention,” a Microsoft spokeswoman said in a statement to Motherboard.
Yet, the lab ruled out “politically sensitive Chinese names in the United States being censored purely through random chance.”
“Rather, their censorship must be the result of a process disproportionately targeting names which are politically sensitive in China,” it stated.
As Microsoft operates in China, it might be obliged to apply censorship in compliance with legal restrictions in the country.
However, there is no legal ground for Bing to expand their name blockade beyond China to as far as the United States and Canada, the report stated.
Citizen Lab’s senior research associate Jeffrey Knockel described censorship rules extending from one part of the world into another as a “danger”, the Wall Street Journal reported.
“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,” he said.