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[liberationtech] Reputation Matters: Unpacking the Microsoft China Censorship Scandal

Ronald Deibert r.deibert at
Fri Feb 14 06:51:41 PST 2014

Oped by Citizen Lab fellow Jason Q. Ng.

Wall Street Journal

	• February 14, 2014, 4:18 PM HKT

Reputation Matters: Unpacking the Microsoft China Censorship Scandal
By Jason Q. Ng

Controversy this week over alleged China-related censorship on the international version of, the search engine operated by Microsoft, has cast an important spotlight on the ways in which censorship can bleed over into supposedly free regions of the Internet and on the importance of credibility in fighting that spread.

The allegations against Microsoft came from Chinese censorship-monitoring website GreatFire, which published a report on Tuesday arguing that Microsoft was censoring searches for politically sensitive Chinese content on the international version of Bing. Testing by journalists and independent sources confirmed GreatFire’s findings: Searches for sensitive terms, including “达赖喇嘛” (Dalai Lama), and “自由微博” (FreeWeibo, a GreatFire website displaying deleted content from Chinese social media), returned filtered results and/or messages stating that results had been removed—even for users outside of China., Google, Yahoo and Microsoft have long struggled with how to adjust their search engines to deal with Chinese requirements, but the appearance of censorship beyond the localized Chinese-version of Bing led GreatFire to propose a disturbing conclusion: Microsoft had altered its search product for users around the world in order to stay in the good graces of Chinese authorities.

Microsoft responded to the report a day after it was published, claiming unintentional mistakes had caused what appeared to be censorship and that such issues were under review or being corrected.

The response met with skepticism in anti-censorship circles. “Technical error? Yeah, right: Not 1st Time,” read a retort posted to the Twitter feed of the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University.

It is indeed not the first time. Microsoft responded in much the same way in 2009 after New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof posted an item documenting apparent censorship when searching on Bing using Chinese. In that case the problem was blamed on “bugs” that Microsoft promised to fix. In 2010, Bing was found to havecensored a number of sex-related keywords in “Arabian” countries. Microsoft-owned Skype has also come under fire from privacy activists after researchers identified censorship and surveillance systems built into the Chinese-version of the program, developed in partnership with Chinese wireless Internet company TOM Online, as early as 2008.

Though GreatFire published two follow-up posts clearly refuting some of Microsoft’s claims in this latest case, the underlying assertion that Microsoft tinkered with its international search engine in order to ingratiate itself with Chinese authorities feels somewhat implausible. China has little to gain in pressuring Microsoft to censor the international version of Bing — a search engine not much used by Chinese people in or outside of the country. Nor does it seem likely that Microsoft would be willing to take such a controversial step with its flagship online brand, whether voluntarily or under Chinese pressure. Importantly, Chinese search results on Bing for a number of obviously sensitive terms like “六四事件” (June 4 Incident) appear not to have been adjusted, calling into doubt the existence of deliberate censorship.

A more plausible explanation is that, due to the numerous local laws and jurisdictions Microsoft has to account for, an honest mistake was made (which doesn’t excuse the company: they still wrote and implemented whatever code was at fault here). As popular Chinese mobile messaging app WeChat demonstrated with its own international censorship fiasco last year, filtering algorithms have a way of showing up in places they weren’t intended to be.

Whether the censorship on Bing was intentional or merely the result of incompetence may still be unclear. It is clear, however, that these allegations represent another significant setback for Microsoft’s reputation in the online community.

The company has made efforts to be seen as a better defender of free speech. In 2008, it became a founding member of the Global Network Initiative, which seeks to unite companies in an effort to resist censorship pressure. It has also taken steps to make Skype more secure (steps that were praised by GreatFire) and published transparency reports that are just as functional as those of its peers. But due to its past, many still presume Microsoft is guilty until it proves itself innocent – a state of affairs the company helped reinforce by not responding to GreatFire’s concerns and correcting the problems before the allegations went public.

In this case, GreatFire was also possibly the victim of its own reputation. No one denies the group has the best interests of Chinese Internet users at heart: In just two years, it has become one of the most valued watchdogs in the China censorship community. It has advanced the level of technical knowledge about censorship in China and, more recently, offered solutions for defeating the Great Firewall. But the group has also pursued a somewhat confrontational approach to advocacy that has led to private grumblings from tech companies forced to navigate complex webs of competing interests in order to function in China.

While it remains unclear why Microsoft shrugged off GreatFire’s initial overtures, it’s possible the group’s reputation among tech companies as more firebrand than potential partner may have had something to do with it. In any case, Microsoft still has a chance to turn GreatFire’s allegations to its advantage by using this controversy as a chance to address more openly the challenges it faces in places like China. Opening a dialogue about its social responsibilities, while embracing the ability of activists to help make its products better, would do more to burnish the company’s reputation than any fix to their algorithm can.

Jason Q. Ng is a research fellow at the University of Toronto’s The Citizen Lab and author of “Blocked on Weibo: What Gets Suppressed on China’s Version of Twitter (And Why).”

Follow him on Twitter @jasonqng

Ronald Deibert
Director, the Citizen Lab 
and the Canada Centre for Global Security Studies
Munk School of Global Affairs
University of Toronto
(416) 946-8916
r.deibert at

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