Microsoft’s Bing search engine briefly blocked footage and videos of the notorious Tiananmen Square “tank man” on Friday, the anniversary of the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy protesters in China, in what the company called ‘mistake.
Users outside of China reported that the search engine returned text results for “tank man” – as an unknown person, carrying shopping bags, who blocked a line of tanks in central Beijing after that the murders were known. But Bing’s video and image tabs didn’t display any reference to the event.
The geographic extent of the filtering was unclear.
Images of “tank man” are routinely blocked in China, as are other references to the military crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square, which has left hundreds or more dead.
Microsoft did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A Microsoft spokeswoman said in a statement that the filtering was due to “accidental human error” and that the company is working to resolve the issue. Early Saturday, the site again returned the video and image results.
Microsoft is the only major foreign company to operate a censored search engine in China. He has struggled to appease the country’s regulators, who heavily censor the internet and worry about the safety of technologies developed by American companies. For its part, the US government is increasingly punishing Chinese companies it says are linked to online repression and surveillance.
Internet censorship in China usually gets even stricter around the anniversary of the Tiananmen murders. Authorities are blocking everything from photos of candles and tanks to oblique references invented by Internet users to bypass controls, such as using “May 35” to mean June 4.
Sometimes this censorship goes beyond Chinese borders. Last year, the Zoom video chat app disrupted several virtual commemorations of the Tiananmen crackdown organized by activists. The company eventually restored the activists’ accounts and said its lockdowns should not have affected people outside of China.
Microsoft began offering a filtered version of Bing for China in 2009. Inside the country’s borders, research into Bing for the Dalai Lama, for example, reveals Chinese state media accounts that blame the religious leader to stir up hatred and separatism. Outside of China, it brings up sites like Wikipedia.
In 2019, Bing briefly disappeared from the Chinese internet, raising fears that one of the country’s few, albeit flawed, alternatives to Chinese search engine Baidu was gone.
Microsoft has adapted other products to meet Chinese demands. It worked with China Electronics Technology Group, a state-owned electronics maker with close ties to the military, to come up with a version of its Windows software that the Chinese government considers secure. President Biden last week banned Americans from investing in the company and 59 others in China, on the grounds that they are involved in surveillance technology that authorities use to suppress dissent and religious minorities.
Microsoft’s professional social network, LinkedIn, operates a separate, filtered version of the site in China. In March, China’s internet regulator berated company executives for failing to censor sensitive political content ahead of a key meeting of Chinese lawmakers.
Another tech company, Israeli web design company Wix, came under fire last week for taking down a website run by pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong on orders from the city police, where China stifled dissent. In a statement, the company apologized and said the removal of the site was a mistake.