There was once a debate about whether large Western multinational corporations – particularly the newly rising high tech companies such as Google, Twitter and Facebook – should do business in countries such as China, where governments are openly hostile to the concept of free speech, a free media and unregulated access to information for their citizens.
That debate was settled some time ago, the winners being those who advocated expanding into China and then perhaps doing a little bit of agitating or talking up the virtues of freedom when time and decorum allowed. And though there has been precious little lobbying of the government in favour of free speech by those multinationals, the investment in China has, by and large, been a good thing.
Having long ago lost the argument that it is not their place to participate in Chinese government efforts to filter and censor the web when operating in China itself, everyone was bobbing along quite merrily in a morally dubious equilibrium, where the big tech companies would parade their wholesome, consumer-oriented credentials around in front of anyone who would listen or take down quotes, while also co-operating with Chinese censorship requirements and allowing the NSA ready back-door access to personal information held on their servers.
It is now believed that in addition to complying with the Chinese government’s demands that search engine query results originating from mainland China are filtered and censored, Microsoft’s also-ran search engine, Bing, has been applying those same censorship algorithms to searches in the Chinese language originating from anywhere on the planet. In other words, Microsoft, either in their zealousness to please the Chinese regime or out of sheer laziness and unwillingness to maintain two separate protocols, has apparently been applying Chinese-style censorship to internet searches not just where the Chinese government has geographical jurisdiction but anywhere in the world, whenever the user happens to be searching in Chinese.
The Telegraph reports:
According to research by Greatfire.org, an anti-censorship campaign blog, Microsoft’s Bing search engine filters Chinese-language results around the world, in the same way as it does in mainland China
Searches for potentially controversial terms such as “Dalai Lama” produce very different results when they are carried out in Chinese than they do in English, even if both searches are carried out on US soil, Greatfire said.
Its claims are likely to raise questions about whether Beijing is trying to extend its censorship regime to the Chinese populations of other countries, and whether Microsoft is making inappropriate concessions.
This is inappropriate to say the very least. The Chinese government’s policy of filtering the internet for its citizens so as to effectively pretend that certain viewpoints, ideologies or historical events are not real is bad enough, as is the fact that Western technology companies have complied with it in order to gain access to Chinese markets while demanding and extracting no concessions or easing of restrictions in exchange. But this allegation, if correct, suggests that corporate malfeasance has been taken to a much more worrying level.
One of the great advantages of globalisation and the free movement of people is that people from different countries can be exposed to different ideas, practices and ways of working. Even though the internet is restricted in mainland China, Chinese citizens could access the full, uncensored internet when traveling abroad, just as they could read the free press. In turn, exposure of Chinese citizens to new and contradictory ideas from outside could ultimately increase pressure on the government to relax their draconian policies.
Basing internet censorship on language rather than geography, as Microsoft appears to be doing, completely destroys this premise and removes the potential for this to happen. As the Telegraph rightly indicates, it would appear that Microsoft is aiding and abetting efforts by the Chinese government to extend their control over expatriate Chinese populations in other countries. In countries such as Britain this may merely be an odious and shameful act, but in other countries such as America, where the right to freedom of expression is constitutionally enshrined, a plausible legal argument could potentially be made that Microsoft is committing a First Amendment violation and breaking the law.
This revelation also contrasts Microsoft very negatively with Google, whose own search engine results for sensitive topics prime for Chinese censorship remain similar whether the search is conducted in English or Chinese, when outside of the Chinese mainland:
Users searching for “Dalai Lama” in Chinese were offered a link to information about a documentary produced by CCTV, the Chinese state-owned broadcaster, before any other search results of results linked to two entries on Baidu Baike, a heavily-censored online encyclopedia. Yahoo, whose search engine is powered by Bing, produced the same results.
By contrast, Google produces broadly similar results for web searches conducted in the US, regardless of whether the terms are searched for in Chinese or English.
But it is Greatfire, the online transparency and pressure group, who pose the ultimate question to Microsoft:
But whose law is dictating the manipulation of search results for Americans who are using Bing in the United States? Or French who are using Bing in France?
It is one thing to prostrate oneself to the laws and whims of a foreign government when negotiating terms to do business in that country. But if incompetence or monetary greed has led Microsoft to start applying Chinese censorship laws to citizens of other countries, then they have a big case to answer.
Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s new CEO, may only be one week into his tenure in the top job, but this is a potential crisis of image and trust that needs to be nipped in the bud and resolved – yesterday.
Microsoft has gone silent in response to the allegations from Greatfire so far. When the firm eventually comes up with an official story and breaks the silence, it will be very interesting indeed to hear their excuses.
I don’t expect that the First Amendment can be brought to bear unless the US Government has a hand in this. Microsoft is a private entity (well, private as in not related to government/state, not as in not open to trade on the stock market) and is free to censor its content as it wishes, just the same as a blogger might have a right to moderate or block comments if they wish (I am not of course making any suggestions here!), or a discussion board admin might be able to do with posts and posters.
It may well be that this casts Microsoft in a bad light, though as you say, Bing is an “also-ran” search engine anyway- many people prefer Google- and far from the only example.
I could see how this might make sense when it comes to relations with China from a business perspective- after all controlling the internet is a difficult business, and it’s surely easy enough to simply use an overseas proxy to get around the Great Firewall. They could then just as easily use the US or other countries’ versions of Bing. Blocking Chinese-based searches might well then be seen as endearing to the regime over there.
Makes me think too that at least China is not North Korea. In the latter country, there is little to no actual access to the internet at all, and they even have their own “national intranet”- basically their own version of the internet separate from the normal internet. At least the Chinese government allows its people some access to the real internet. (This is much the same, I understand, with radio and television- receivers must be preset to official government stations and cannot tune into anything else, and must be checked regularly for signs of tampering. I doubt this is so in China.)