Microsoft plays footsie again with Chinese censors -- even in the U.S.

Microsoft is being charged with doing the bidding of Chinese censors by censoring Bing search results not just in China, but in Chinese searches in the U.S. as well. Microsoft denied the allegations -- but then even censored the denial before sending it to the Chinese media. Does Microsoft have any credibility left on this issue at all?

Yesterday the Guardian reported that:

Microsoft's search engine Bing appears to be censoring information for Chinese language users in the US in the same way it filters results in mainland China.

The charges were first made by the blog Greatfire. When a variety of searches were done using Bing in the Chinese language in the U.S. and China, results were censored, when compared to results done in the English language in the U.S. For example, when Chinese language searches were done in the U.S. and China for the Dalai Lama, links were returned to "information on a documentary compiled by CCTV, China’s state-owned broadcaster. This is followed by two entries from Baidu Baike, China’s heavily censored Wikipedia rival run by the search engine Baidu. The results are similar on Yahoo, whose search is powered by Bing."

When the same search was done on Bing in English in the U.S., the lead link was to the Dalai Lama's own Web site, and then to links to the Wikipedia entry about the Dalai Lama, and a variety of news reports, including those from the Phayul.com, pro-Tibetan independence website. In addition, the search results page on Bing shows a photo of the Dalai Lama, while no such photo appears when doing a Chinese language search, even in the U.S.

That is just one example among many. Search for Bo Xilai, a former top Chinese official who is imprisoned for life because of corruption, and similar things happen.

Charlie Smith, who wrote the blog for Greatfire, told the Guardian:

"It’s a bit crazy. Any Chinese person who is searching in Chinese from overseas is being treated as if they have the same rights as a resident of mainland China. So we won’t show them the accurate search results if they search for Dalai Lama. What you get is state controlled propaganda. Except they don’t tell you the results have been censored. If you were in China they would at least tell you that."

In response, Microsoft issued a not-very-believable denial, with Stefan Weitz, senior director for Bing telling Reuters:

"Due to an error in our system, we triggered an incorrect results removal notification for some searches noted in the report but the results themselves are and were unaltered outside of China."

That's a non-denial denial if ever there were one. It's a bit tough to parse what he's trying to say, but it sounds as if he's saying that yes, it's true that results were altered, but it was a mere accident. And was it also an accident that the results removed exactly match the results removed in China because of censorship? Weitz isn't saying.

Microsoft had also censored Chinese-language results in the U.S. and China for searches for FreeWeibo.com, a site that lets people anonymously search through Chinese social media services. Microsoft had this to say about that censorship:

"With regards to the freeweibo.com homepage being absent from Bing search results, our investigation indicates that at some time in the past the page was marked as inappropriate due to low quality or adult content. After review, we have determined the page is acceptable for inclusion in global search results.

"Bing aims to provide a robust set of high-quality, relevant search results to our users. In doing so, Bing has extremely high standards that respect human rights, privacy and freedom of expression.

But Greatfire notes in its latest blog about the issue that even when Bing's safe search is turned off, which will allow searching for adult content, freeweibo.com didn't turn up in searches.

And if Microsoft's credibility hadn't already been destroyed in this issue, Reuters notes that Microsoft even censored its denial of the allegations when it sent the denial to Chinese news media. Reuters reports:

Microsoft sent a shortened version of the statement to China-based media organizations which omitted all reference to GreatFire.org and did not address the allegations.

"There were too many points in the original statement," a China-based Microsoft spokeswoman told Reuters.

Microsoft isn't the only company to kowtow to Chinese censors. Apple does the same thing, by banning certain apps that mention the Dalai Lama or other figures and issues from the App Store in China. That's bad enough. But censoring the results in the U.S. goes far beyond that. Microsoft's thoroughly non-believable denial makes things only worse for the company.

It's simple: Microsoft is flat-out wrong here. It needs to stop censoring Bing for the Chinese censors, and not just in the U.S. but in China as well. And it should admit to the truth of what it's doing as well.

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