Microsoft 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 "Dalai Lama."
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 massacre.
"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 impartial results.
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.
U.S. search 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 Thanksgiving holiday."
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.
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 Bing blog 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 brutal.
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.