Microsoft's Bing may be gradually expanding its share of the search market, but the search engine-and by extension, Redmond-finds itself under fire from New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.
In a Nov. 20 column, Kristof accused Microsoft of "craven kowtowing" to the Chinese government by offering "sanitized pro-Communist results" for politically sensitive search terms such as "Dalai Lama" inputted into Bing in simplified Chinese. "What's most offensive," Kristof wrote, "is that this is true wherever in the world the search is conducted-including in my office in New York."
Kristof claims that this first came to his attention in June; apparently, Microsoft responded at the time that the search results in Chinese were the result of what the company deemed "a bug." Although Microsoft claims that the bug was subsequently repaired, Kristof doesn't believe that to be the case.
"Microsoft's current position, which insults my intelligence and yours, is that there was indeed a bug of some kind and that it is fixed," Kristof wrote in his column, "but that searches in simplified characters continue to produce pro-Communist results because of the algorithms used."
In other words, Kristof added, Microsoft asserts that a search in a particular language "emphasizes results from within the country that uses that language," meaning that "if you search in the simplified characters used within China, then you get disproportionally Chinese propaganda."
Kristof linked to images of the Chinese-language Bing processing specific terms, along with the search results, here.
Realizing that a targeted article by a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner probably deserves a prompt response, Microsoft issued a blog posting that same day that promised to fix the issue.
"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 corporate blog posting on Nov. 20. "We have identified the bug and are at work on the fix. We expect to have this done before the Thanksgiving holiday."
Sohn defended Bing as producing "very balanced Web results" for simplified-Chinese queries such as "June 4th Tiananmen," but also suggested that "we can continue to improve our relevancy and comprehensiveness in these web results and we will."
Kristof, however, seemed unimpressed by the blog posting.
Microsoft's blog posting "notes that some Bing searches are not skewed even in simplified characters but acknowledges that image searches in particular are sanitized," he wrote in an update to his original column. "It says that this is a bug that was identified today and that it will soon be fixed. That's basically what I was told last June, and I'm very skeptical."
U.S. search engines have traditionally wrestled with the People's Republic of China over censored content in their results. Back in 2006, in order to create a local Chinese presence at google.cn, Google famously had to make some concessions to the Chinese government.
"We have agreed to remove certain sensitive information from our search results," Andrew McLaughlin, senior policy counsel for Google, wrote on the official Google blog on Jan. 27, 2006. "We know that many people are upset about this decision, and frankly, we understand that point of view. This wasn't an easy choice, but in the end, we believe the course of action we've chosen will prove to be the right one."
For years, McLaughlin added, "we've debated whether entering the Chinese market at this point in history could be consistent with our mission and values. ... We ultimately reached our decision by asking ourselves which course would most effectively further Google's mission to organize the world's information and make it universally useful and accessible."
Although Kristof is a prominent reporter, it remains to be seen whether his call for a boycott of Bing will have any substantial effect on the search engine, especially if Microsoft makes good on its word to fix what it calls the "bug" affecting results outside of China.