Boycotting Microsoft Bing Is No Funny Thing

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2009-11-22 Print this article Print

Microsoft's Bing search engine has seen a decent growth trajectory since it launched in June, growing from 8.4 percent to 9.9 percent through October.

Could November be the month when Bing cracks the double digit mark? It could and probably will (at least according to comScore), but not if people keep micturating on it.

That's right. In a move he described as "craven kowtowing," Nicholas D. Kristof at the New York Times claimed Bing filters results for searches conducted outside of the People's Republic of China (PRC) using Simplified Chinese characters for their query.

He wrote in a Nov. 20 column that Microsoft is tweaking Bing searches to suck up to State Security in Beijing, becoming "part of the Communist Party's propaganda apparatus." His evidence? Kristof wrote:

If you search a term on Bing that is politically sensitive in China, in English the results are legitimate. Search "Tiananmen" and you'll find out about the army firing on pro-democracy protesters in 1989. Search Dalai Lama, Falun Gong and you also get credible results. Conduct the search in complex Chinese characters (the kind used in Taiwan and Hong Kong) and on the whole you still get authentic results.

But conduct the search with the simplified characters used in mainland China, then you get sanitized pro-Communist results. This is especially true of image searches. Magic! No Tiananmen Square massacre. The Dalai Lama becomes an oppressor. Falun Gong believers are villains, not victims.

Update: Kristof added screenshots here.

Kristof broached this subject with Microsoft back in June, and the company claimed it was a bug. Six months later, he wrote, the censorship continues, with Microsoft claiming

"that a search in any given language emphasizes results from within the country that uses that language. Thus if you search in the simplified characters used within China, then you get disproportionately Chinese propaganda."

Kristof, smelling something fishy, believes he was hoodwinked in June, and that the company was merely covering up what was actually its policy of serving censored, simplified character results in China.

Microsoft responded here, claiming bug again, but Kristof is having none of it:

Microsoft apparently doesn't want to pursue the Google solution of having separate sites - one that produces generally legitimate results ( and another within China that blatantly censors ( Instead, Bing figured it would have one site and just censor all the results in simplified Chinese characters. It then compounded the problem by dissembling and disguising its policy. That's craven and embarrassing, it betrays the integrity of Microsoft searches, and for me it's a reason to boycott Bing.

Kristof is a journalist for the Times asking people in the U.S. to boycott Bing over it's policy in China. While it's nice to see a journalist -- a two-time Pulitzer prize-winning one at that -- take up a cause, it will fall flat.

People don't want to be be burdened by moral or ethical dilemmas when they are using technology, especially search engines that help them find what they are looking for on the vast Web. Whether they should or not is another debate.

Calling for boycotts works for things that tug at peoples' sentiments and emotions, not for cold, impersonal things like technology.

You might enjoy some success standing outside a supermarket and asking shoppers not to purchase certain brands of tuna because they are not dolphin safe. People love cute dolphins.

But ask the average citizen to stop using their favorite search engine because you don't like how the company is serving it in another country -- a Communist country, no less -- seems like a low reward request (good thing it's low risk).

People are protective of the tools they use. Imagine telling a carpenter to cast aside his favorite hammer for a higher moral ground. For consumers, search engines from Google, Yahoo, Bing and others are their hammers.

I appreciate the moral stance. I hate it when high-tech companies mislead journalists trying to expose the truth, but you might as well bang your head against the wall for all the good it will do.

I'm not accusing Kristof of a bias vs. Bing. Though the odds are that he is a Google search user are two to one, I have no doubt he would ask the same of users if Google or Yahoo were behaving just as badly (assuming you believe Bing is playing a shell game with the truth over its treatment of search in China).

Imagine if he has asked us to stop using Google! Kristof would get the sort of looks reserved for people who slather themselves in peanut butter before going into court. It's a little nutty.

*But asking the roughly 10 percent of the select minority that uses Bing won't amount to much. For one thing, it's 10 percent of U.S. Internet searchers (cuts redundancy). For another, this is about how people surf the Web, not about saving whale (or dolphins).

I'm just not sure targeting a search engine -- the No. 3 one at that -- with the self-righteous measure is worthwhile.

Though I will be watching Bing's moves more closely. Too many more whiffs of this type of impropriety will kill the fledgling search engine, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's bluster be damned. |

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