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Microsoft Bing censors politically sensitive Chinese terms

Research claims it fails to autofill certain names in Han characters, Microsoft says it's technical error

Updated Microsoft search engine Bing censors terms deemed sensitive in China from its autosuggestion feature internationally, according to research from Citizen Lab.

The University of Toronto research organization analyzed the search engine's autosuggestion system for censorship of nearly 100,000 names in the United States, Canada and China in both English letters and Chinese characters. Testing was done by modifying region settings, language setting and IP address geolocation.

Microsoft responded to a notification from Citizen Lab, and called [PDF] the lack of autofill terms a "technical error" and said they'd resolved the issue.

The Citizen Lab group claims it found that censored individuals primarily related to Chinese political sensitivity when the word was written in Chinese characters, or names falling under an umbrella that the group termed "eroticism" if searched in English letters.

In English, the names were associated with burlesque dancers, pornographers, glamour models, leaks of stolen nude pics and similar and also the names of drag queens (who are often unfairly linked to sex work). Interestingly, names like Dick Cheney were also censored, based on connotations that could come from the person's first name. Some Chinese political names were also censored when searched in English letters, like "Xi Jinping", "Liu Xiaobo", and "Tank Man."

Chinese character names not showing up in autofill included incumbent leaders like Xi Jinping, retired officials like Wen Jiabao, historical figures like Chinese Communist Party co-founder Li Dazhao as well as politically sensitive search terms such as the names of people involved in scandals or power struggles.

Citizen Lab reasoned that the censorship of Chinese leaders' names in the domestic and international versions of Bing in China may be due to Microsoft's compliance with Chinese laws and regulations.

After all, in September 2021, China demanded companies create governance systems for algorithms.

By late March 2022, presumably after much of Citizen Lab's research, Bing turned off auto-suggestions in China altogether at the request of Beijing. The feature was also shut down for 30 days between December 2021 and January 2022.

But none of this explains why the terms would be removed from autofill in North America.

Citizen Lab said it's very unlikely that the censorship is by random chance, but rather "the result of a process disproportionately targeting names which are politically sensitive in China."

"Search engines play an important role in distributing content and shaping how the public perceives certain issues," explained Citizen Lab. Not only do the autosuggestion systems predict intended queries, they are based on previous queries, so if people stop searching for the terms, they stop being suggested and thereby influence search behaviour.

And its not simply Bing that's affected – Bing feeds autosuggestion and search result data to other engines and is the default search engine in Microsoft Edge. Bing is also built into the Windows start menu.

Citizen Lab says it is "happy" that its research led to the discovery and resolution of a misconfiguration but also stated:

In light of our past research, the findings in this report again demonstrate that an internet platform cannot facilitate free speech for one demographic of its users while applying extensive political censorship against another demographic of its users.

Meanwhile, Microsoft is deeply entrenched in China, having entered in 1992, and Beijing has shown no signs of letting up with its policies on censorship. ®

Updated to add on 20 May:

Microsoft has been in touch to say: "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.

"We were not able to reproduce other examples they cited in their report after trying multiple scenarios. In general, the autosuggestions someone sees are largely based on the query itself, and driven largely by user behavior, such as the queries other local users are searching for. Not seeing an autosuggestion does not mean it has been blocked."

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