Microsoft claimed to eWEEK that it had fixed a controversial "bug" that made Bing Image Search deliver pro-Chinese-government results in response to politically sensitive queries. Independent testing by eWEEK seemed to deliver a more balanced mix of images in response to certain search terms, such as "Tiananmen Incident," while others produced what could be seen as more sanitized results. Both Microsoft and Google have been trying to expand their search franchises into China, which represents a substantial market.
claims it fixed a controversial "bug" that made Bing Image Search
deliver uniformly pro-Chinese-government results to politically sensitive
queries inputted in Simplified Chinese.
Bing came under fire on Nov. 20 from New York Times columnist Nicholas
Kristof, who accused Microsoft of "craven kowtowing" to the Chinese
government by offering "sanitized pro-Communist results" in response
to Bing searches in Simplified Chinese for terms such as "Tiananmen" and
For example, Kristof said, when "Tiananmen" was typed into the
English-language version of Bing, the top-level results featured sites such as
Wikipedia describing the Tiananmen Square protests of
1989; however, input the same term into the Simplified Chinese version of Bing,
and the results included no mention of the protests or subsequent massacre.
"Conduct the search with simplified characters used in mainland China,
then you get sanitized pro-Communist results," Kristof
wrote in his Nov. 20 column
. "This is especially true of image
searches. Magic! No Tiananmen Square
"What's most offensive," Kristof added, "is that this is true
wherever in the world the search is conducted-including my office in New
York." The use of "complex Chinese
characters (the kind used in Taiwan
and Hong Kong)" supposedly gave Kristof more
When Kristof originally wrote about the issue in June, Microsoft apparently
told him that the Simplified Chinese search results were the result of a
"bug" that would be fixed. In his November column, though, Kristof
insisted that his searches continued to produce the same sanitized results as
before. To back his claims, he linked to a Web page of Bing processing
specific terms in Simplified Chinese
engines have a long history of wrestling with the People's Republic of China
over censored content; in 2006,
Google found itself forced to make data-filtering concessions to Beijing in
order to create a local Chinese presence at Google.cn
. So while the issue
might be considered old news by some, Microsoft nonetheless felt the need to
respond to Kristof's assertions.
"Today's investigations uncovered the fact that our image search is not
functioning properly for queries entered using Simplified Chinese characters
outside of the PRC (People's Republic of
China)," Adam Sohn, senior director of Bing, wrote
in a Nov. 20 posting on the official Bing blog.
"We have identified
the bug and are at work on the fix. We expect to have this done before the
On Nov. 30, a few days after the Bing bug was allegedly fixed, eWEEK
inputted Simplified Chinese terms considered politically sensitive to the PRC,
such as "Tiananmen Square" and "Falun
Gong," into Bing.
of this testing can be found on the Microsoft Watch blog, here
When the term "Tiananmen Square" was
inputted into Bing Image Search in Simplified Chinese, it returned results
largely composed of pleasant landscape shots from Xinhua, the official press
agency of the PRC.
Typing the same term, in English, into Bing
Image Search returned mostly images from the 1989 protests, including the
iconic photo of a lone citizen standing in front of a line of tanks.
Different "Tiananmen"-centric search terms, inputted in Simplified
Chinese, returned different results. For example, after inputting the Simplified
Chinese term for "Tiananmen Incident" into Bing's Image Search, the search
engine returned some photos from the 1989 protests, along with other, more
random images. With the input of "June 4th Tiananmen"-the example
held up on the official
as proof that the "bug" had been fixed-the result was a
collection of photos from the same protests, some of them quite bloody and
On the Web Search side of things, the results for Simplified Chinese queries
could be construed as somewhat balanced. For example, when the term "Falun
Gong" was typed into the Simplified Chinese version of Bing, the top-level
results included sites that portray Falun Gong as an underground organization
and a "cult"-but also listed third in the results was a politically
balanced Wikipedia page on the belief system.
The English language results for "Falun Gong," on the other hand,
were obviously very different, and included sites such as the "official
home page for Falun Dafa (Falun Gong)."
A Microsoft spokesperson told eWEEK in an e-mail on Nov. 30 that "the
bug identified in the web image search was indeed fixed," before quoting
from Sohn's original Nov. 20 blog posting: "Please also note that
Microsoft 'recognize[s] that we can continue to improve our relevancy and
comprehensiveness in these web results and we will.'"
Although Kristof said in his column that he would boycott Bing, he has not
offered a response to Microsoft's supposed fix.