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Microsoft's Bing Applied China's Political Censorship to Some North American Searches, Report Says

The tech giant's Bing search engine reportedly didn't autofill search suggestions for terms the Chinese government typically censors. Microsoft said it was a misconfiguration.

Microsoft logo on a tablet screen
Microsoft, and other tech giants like Apple, walk a line between Western values on free expression and working with Chinese censors.
Sarah Tew/CNET

Microsoft's search engine applied Chinese-style censorship to some North American searches, according to a new report, raising questions about the tech giant's dedication to the flow of information across the internet.

Bing's autofill search system, which lists suggestions based on a word or the beginning letters typed into a search box, failed to work with names and terms that the Chinese government is known to find politically sensitive, according to a new report from Citizen Lab, a public interest cybersecurity group. The organization found that in December last year, people prompting searches that would suggest connections to Chinese party leaders, dissidents or other politically sensitive topics, were regularly censored.

Microsoft acknowledged and reportedly fixed the issue, telling a reporter at The Wall Street Journal that it was a technical error that had caused people outside China to be affected by settings meant for that country. "A small number of users may have experienced a misconfiguration that prevented surfacing some valid autosuggest terms, and we thank Citizen Lab for bringing this to our attention," a Microsoft spokeswoman said, according to The Wall Street Journal. In a follow-up statement to CNET, a Microsoft spokeswoman added that the autosuggestions on Bing are "largely based on the query itself," and so, "not seeing an autosuggestion does not mean it has been blocked."

Citizen Lab contended that regardless of Microsoft's intention, the result harmed internet use around the world. "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," Citizen Lab researchers wrote.

The report from Citizen Lab is the latest in a string of examples in which tech companies have failed to live up to their stated goals of encouraging free expression and the flow of information around the globe. Microsoft in particular has been outspoken against the Chinese government, which often demands tech giants censor politically sensitive information. That includes, for example, history of the Tiananmen Square democratic protests in 1989.

Microsoft isn't the only tech company grappling with these issues. Apple has been widely criticized for censoring its App Store in China, among other reported privacy concessions. Google as well has a contentious relationship with the Chinese government, having pulled its search engine from the country in 2010, yet still seeing its Android software power most of the phones people use there.

Citizen Lab's latest report on Microsoft follows a string of other investigations, including one that found Apple censored engravings for products in China and Hong Kong. Citizen Lab is connected to the University of Toronto and has helped identify threats against free expression, such as the Pegasus spyware operations that targeted activists, journalists, politicians and corporate executives.