Microsoft's Baidu Partnership Could Court Controversy

Microsoft's Bing will power Baidu's English-language search in China. But will the partnership attract controversy over censorship?

Microsoft is pairing with China's largest Internet search provider, Baidu, to provide users with search results for English-language queries.

A spokesperson for Shanghai MSN Network Communications Technology, also known as MSN China, told the Wall Street Journal July 4 that the results would be labeled as coming from Bing. The deal holds substantial benefits for both companies: Baidu is looking to expand its user base, while Microsoft has made no secret of its desire for inroads into the Chinese market.

The question is whether the Chinese government will demand Microsoft censor those English-language results. "Microsoft respects and follows laws and regulations in every county where we run business," a Microsoft spokesperson told The New York Times July 4. "We operate in China in a manner that both respects local authority and culture and makes it clear that we have differences of opinion with official content management policies."

Although Google continues to dominate the worldwide market for Web search, the company's run-ins with the Chinese government over issues like censorship are well-known. Following a hack of Google servers in early 2010 that exposed Gmail accounts of human-rights activists, Google ceased censoring search results in the country and redirected users to the domain in Hong Kong. In March 2011, the company accused the Chinese government of disrupting Gmail service.

China's president, Hu Jintao, has called for tighter Internet controls to prevent internal unrest, which apparently includes filtering out news of uprisings across the Middle East. The Chinese government also denies it had anything to do with the cyber-attacks on Google and other U.S. companies, including defense contractors,

Microsoft has also courted its share of controversy with regard to China. Bing came under fire in November 2009, when New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof 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 Websites such as Wikipedia describing the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. However, when the same term was input into the Simplified Chinese version of Bing, the results made no mention of protests or the 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."

When Kristof originally wrote about the issue in June 2009, 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.

A few days after Kristof's November column, Microsoft claimed it fixed a "bug" that made Bing Image Search deliver uniformly pro-Chinese-government results in response to politically sensitive queries input in Simplified Chinese. Soon after that alleged fix, eWEEK input Simplified Chinese terms considered politically sensitive to the People's Republic of China, such as "Tiananmen Square" and "Falun Gong," into Bing. The results seemed mixed.

"The bug identified in the Web image search was indeed fixed," a Microsoft spokesperson insisted to eWEEK at the time.

In April 2010, Microsoft also investigated allegations of labor violations at the KYE factory in China's Dongguan City. While the company claimed it corrected "some issues" that violated its Vendor Code of Conduct, the nonprofit National Labor Committee-which originally highlighted the factory conditions-found their explanation unconvincing.

"In China, all you can possibly get is the dog-and-pony show," Charles Kernaghan, the organization's director, told eWEEK at the time. "They know there's not going to be any open discussion with the workers."

With the Baidu deal, the question now is whether Microsoft's increased involvement in China's search-engine market will result in Google-style conflicts over censorship, or whether Redmond will hew silently to the Chinese government's policies.

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