November 21st, 2009 | by Pete Cashmore
The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof is controversially asking web users to “Boycott Bing“, claiming that Bing is censoring Simplified Chinese queries even outside the People’s Republic of China.
Last night, Bing responded to Kristof’s Friday afternoon posting, citing a programming bug but failing to deny the censorship claims.
To us, both sides of the argument seem lacking.
Kristof’s complaint is part of an ongoing debate: should US companies censor their search results to appease Chinese authorities? Those in favor say it’s simply good business sense to be present in China, and censored results are better than no results at all. Others see search engines compromising their values.
But that debate concerns search results within Chinese borders: Kristof says Simplified Chinese results are censored wherever you search from:
…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.
What’s most offensive is that this is true wherever in the world the search is conducted – including in my office in New York. If Microsoft felt it had to bow to Chinese censorship within China’s borders, based on the IP address, that might be defensible. But when Microsoft skews its worldwide searches to make Hu Jintao feel better, that’s a disgrace. It becomes simply a unit of the Central Committee Propaganda Department.
Kristof then somewhat undermines his argument by admitting that Google does much the same thing, albeit to a lesser extent: “Google censors results on its search engine used within China, google.cn, but offers mostly uncensored results using simplified Chinese characters on its worldwide browser, google.com. However, some searches on google.com, such as images for Falun Gong, are also censored.” Should we boycott Google too?
Bing’s response is unconvincing, vague and evasive, suggesting simultaneously that “some results” are fine, and that a bug might be partly to blame.
As Mr. Kristof reported over the summer, we did fix a bug in web search that addressed this issue. There are some queries that provide very balanced web results, for example 六四 天安门 (June 4th Tiananmen). We recognize that we can continue to improve our relevancy and comprehensiveness in these web results and we will.
In addition, 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. We have identified the bug and are at work on the fix. We expect to have this done before the Thanksgiving holiday.
If Bing is in the clear here, their response is poor. The answer they should have given if there’s no case to be made: “We don’t censor Simplified Chinese search results outside China. It’s a bug and results will be improved by Thanksgiving.” To respond in these vague terms implies Bing has something to hide.