I noted last week that The New Leaf Journal has been blocked from appearing in Bing search results, which prevents us appearing in search front-ends that follow Bing such as DuckDuckGo and Qwant and may affect certain non-Bing search engines to some extent or another. In posting updates about the situation, I have seldom missed the opportunity to reference my 2021 article on Bing censorship – both inside and outside of China – of image search results related to the Tienanmen Square massacre. Our current troubles with Bing inspired me to examine some other cases in which Microsoft’s Bing search engine has engaged in censorship on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party before offering unavailing explanations for its own actions. After noting these cases, I will take a moment to offer some criticism of DuckDuckGo, which has been quite outspoken about certain other search engines engaging in censorship and propaganda, but oddly quiet about the Bing, the one from which it derives its own search results.
First, let us revisit the incident that I wrote about in 2021. June 4, 2021, marked the 32nd anniversary of the student protests at Tienanmen Square China. In response to the demonstrations, the Chinese Communist Party had rolled in the tanks and killed a still unknown number of peaceful protesters. There is an iconic image from the demonstration of a lone unarmed protester facing down a row of tanks. People looking for this image sometimes searched simply for tank man. As I explained in my 2021 article, Bing not only censored image search results for tank man in China – it also censored these results worldwide. I demonstrated that Bing’s Chinese Communist Party-directed censorship had downstream effects on those search engines that use Bing’s index – namely DuckDuckGo, Qwant, and Swisscows. What was Microsoft Bing’s explanation for the global censorship? I quote its response to The Verge for a January 5, 2021 article:
This is due to accidental human error and we are actively working to resolve this.
Accidental human error, eh? That is a very peculiar and highly specific accidental human error. We will see soon that this was neither the first nor last such accidental human error committed by Microsoft. But first, I must credit the author of the 2021 Verge report, Mr. Ian Carlos Campbell, for being less than convinced by Microsoft’s explanation. I quote Mr. Campbell:
Microsoft did eventually restore results to the specific search, though it’s still noticeably missing the well-known image. Adding in a mention of ‘Tiananmen’ or ‘Tiananmen Square’ pulls up what you’d expect, however. It’s not clear why Bing would weigh generic images of tanks more heavily than a famous piece of visual history, but we’ve reached out to Microsoft see if that’s normal.
In fact, Microsoft’s messaging had been shaky for the whole tank man scandal. One day earlier, Microsoft had claimed to have fixed the accidental human error, only for elementary attempts to run searches for the famous photograph to reveal that the censorship remained ongoing (see report).
That Bing engaged in Tienanmen Square censorship was hardly a secret. In 2019, Mr. Tom Simonite of Wired penned a report about how Microsoft ensures that the Chinese version of its flagship search engine censors results about Tienanmen Square all year around. What Microsoft failed to explain in 2021, and has not explained in a satisfactory way since, is why it chose, however briefly, to extend its Chinese Communist Party-directed censorship to the entire world.
Microsoft and Bing have a torrid relationship with the Chinese Communist Party, and I will demonstrate that this relationship has paid some dividends for Microsoft. But first, let us visit a February 11, 2014 article by Mr. Dominic Rushe for The Guardian, who reported on Bing’s returning censored results for searches when made in Mandarin from outside of China. That is, unlike the Tienanmen Square incident of 2021, when English-language searches in Bing for topics deemed to be controversial by the Chinese Communist Party, such as queries about the Dalai Lama or Falun Gong, Bing returned expected English-language results. However, if a user ran a search in simplified Chinese characters from the United States, the results were censored. Mr. Charlie Smith of Greatfire, who had identified the issue, gave the following statement to The Guardian:
It’s a bit crazy. Any Chinese person who is searching in Chinese from overseas is being treated as if they have the same rights as a resident of mainland China. So we won’t show them the accurate search results if they search for Dalai Lama. What you get is state controlled propaganda. Except they don’t tell you the results have been censored. If you were in China they would at least tell you that.Charlie Smith
Mr. Smith requested comment from Microsoft. He received none. Microsoft also declined requests for comment from The Guardian. However, Microsoft eventually decided that hiding under a rock was not a sustainable approach, so Mr. Stefan Weitz, then senior director of Bing, released a statement insisting that Microsoft was not applying Chinese Communist Party censorship globally:
First, Bing does not apply China’s legal requirements to searches conducted outside of China. Due to an error in our system, we triggered an incorrect results removal notification for some searches noted in the report but the results themselves are and were unaltered outside of China.Stefan Weitz
Is a 2014 error in our system a close relative of the accidental human error from 2021 or are they different?
Now, one might think that Microsoft, the company behind the world’s most important computer operating system, second largest search engine, and countless critical enterprise products, would learn from its errors, including errors of both the system and human flavors. However, it appears that the same errors keep occurring. In May 19, 2022 – note nearly one year after the 2021 Tienanmen Square censorship incident attributed to accidental human error – Mr. Jeffrey Knockel and Lotus Ruan of the University of Toronto published a report on their findings that Bing’s autosuggestion feature was selectively not suggesting certain terms deemed sensitive by Chinese Communist Party authorities for searches conducted in North America. My word, how does this keep happening? Microsoft had an explanation for Mr. Ian Sherr of CNET (see report):
Microsoft acknowledged and reportedly fixed the issue, telling a reporter at The Wall Street Journal that it was a technical error that had caused people outside China to be affected by settings meant for that country. ‘A small number of users may have experienced a misconfiguration that prevented surfacing some valid autosuggest terms, and we thank Citizen Lab for bringing this to our attention.’
First Microsoft had a system error. Then it was the victim of human error. Now just a technical glitch of an error. It is a wonder how all results of these errors trend in the same direction though. Nevertheless, I would give some credit to Microsoft for at least acknowledging what it had done – regardless of the cause – in a far less defensive or dismissive way than it had in the 2014 and 2019 incidents, despite simultaneously insisting that it could not reproduce all of the incidents identified in the University of Toronto report.
(However, because Microsoft has blacklisted my site without any explanation, I respectfully decline to give any of its earlier explanations any credit at all.)
Back in high school, a classmate of mine used a school computer to inquire of the then-former Governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer, “was it worth it?” For those not in the know, Mr. Spitzer had recently resigned as Governor due to his use of paid escorts becoming public knowledge. I wrote about my memories of the affair here on site. That piercing question can be asked of Bing as well. We know that Bing censors search results inside China in order to maintain its search engine there – going further than Google, which does have its own Chinese Communist Party problems, but which has largely given up on search in the world’s largest communist country. We also know for a fact that Microsoft sometimes extends its search censorship beyond China’s borders, going so far as to ensure that people using Bing in the United States can benefit from the same protections against exposure to legitimate news as those who use Bing in mainland China (thanks!). Now, whether you believe that all of the incidents of Bing’s international pro-Chinese Communist Party censorship, three of which I detailed above, were committed in error, there can be no question that the root cause was and continues to be what Microsoft is willing to do in order to stay in the good graces of the Chinese Communist Party. So I ask the same question of Microsoft that my friend asked of former Governor Spitzer:
Was it worth it?
Depending on who you check, you will find different estimates of Bing’s search engine market share in China. China is one of the few countries in the world where Google is not the dominant search engine – and unlike other exceptions, notably Russia, Google Search actually has very little presence in the so-called People’s Republic. Baidu – which has sent more referrals to The New Leaf Journal than Bing has in the last week – is the dominant search engine in China by a wide margin (note: we seem to no longer show up for any Baidu queries, but because I never followed Baidu too closely, I am not sure whether we are actually outside of its index and if so, if this is a new phenomenon). As for Bing, I have seen estimates ranging from about 3% to 12% market share, but in all of the estimates it still decisively out-performs Google in China, and it is either the second- or third-most-used search engine in the world’s most populated country.
Recent estimates of Bing’s search engine market share in China:
- MarketMeChina March 2022 report (6.7%, second place)
- Oberlo 2022 report (3.4%, second place)
- The Egg 2021 report (3%, third place)
- Tooltester July 2022 report (3%, second place)
- Statcounter for November 2022 (12.5%, second place)
Was it worth it, Microsoft? Is it worth it? That is not for me to judge, but it does appear that Microsoft has likely made a good business decision if nothing else and it is sticking with it.
To be sure, many big companies make certain compromises with respect to China in one way or another. It is unlikely that I would have been able to build my computer without parts built in China. Moreover, I would like The New Leaf Journal to be present in every major search engine in order to ensure that people all over the world can find our articles (including this one). But there is a distinct difference between making certain decisions in accord with business realities, some of which are beyond an individual company’s control, and proactively acceding to censorship demands from the Chinese Communist Party. Now I note again that I have criticized Google often on The New Leaf Journal, including for its own incidents of Chinese censorship, but Google has for one reason or another declined to go as far as Microsoft to keep a search presence in China and, I will venture, loses some money in so declining. This establishes clearly and beyond doubt that Microsoft is making a choice. We can only hope that its system, human, and technical errors stop inflicting that choice on people who do not call Chairman Xi sovereign.
I will note that there seems to be few published examples of these errors ever affecting the Chinese variant of Bing. For example, do Bing users in China ever see uncensored international results due to these system, human, or technical errors? Do the errors always flow in one direction? I know China has at times had issues with Bing not being quite diligent enough in censorship, but were those disputes on account of similar errors to the so-called errors that caused Chinese censorship to be exported abroad?
I previously wrote about the sometimes lethal consequences of politicians and corporations kowtowing to the Chinese Communist Party with respect to a certain pathogen that said party tried to cover up and found far too many international allies ready and willing to assist it. We have enough problems with Chinese Communist Party propaganda in our institutions as it is. May we at least search in peace?
I have said my piece on Bing, and now I will conclude with a piece on DuckDuckGo. DuckDuckGo, like most alternatives to Google and Bing, uses Bing’s search index. DuckDuckGo acknowledges its Bing reliance, but, in my opinion, it minimizes it to the point of being misleading to people who do not know better. Now, in general, my views on DuckDuckGo are largely favorable. I have previously used it as a primary search engine, gave it two positive reviews, and wrote a guide to using DuckDuckGo for domain-specific searches. While I think we need more search indexes, most of the true alternatives to Google and Bing are not quite ready for prime time. DuckDuckGo is certainly a better version of Bing, but it is fundamentally still Bing in terms of the types of results you will see returned for search queries. I explained in the Tienanmen Square article that the Bing issue affected DuckDuckGo image searches in the same manner that they were affected on Bing. In another article, I noted that being blacklisted from Bing searches results in the same happening in DuckDuckGo (I can confirm this is the case for The New Leaf Journal, which is no small problem since we had always received more DuckDuckGo referrals than Bing referrals).
DuckDuckGo used to have a partnership with Yandex, Russia’s largest search engine. I wrote a bit about Yandex in 2020. While DuckDuckGo never mixed search results from Bing and Yandex (something that I learned from a reader comment is not permitted by Bing), it sometimes returned results from Yandex’s index instead of Bing’s. In light of the fact that Yandex has not blacklisted The New Leaf Journal and its webmaster console provides useful information, unlike Bing’s, this perhaps benefited us to a small degree by making it at least theoretically possible that someone could find our site through a DuckDuckGo web search if it returned information from Yandex. My interest in expediting our being on DuckDuckGo in the early stages of The New Leaf Journal was what prompted me to acquire Yandex Webmaster Tools and write about them here on site.
(Before continuing, I must make one note about some of the links I included above about DuckDuckGo. Several of the links I will post about DuckDuckGo reference a New York Times story claiming that DuckDuckGo is a useful website for conspiracy theorists who do not like Google. That Times article and the sentiments expressed was wholly idiotic, and I do not endorse it in any way. DuckDuckGo is just a front-end for Bing with a better UI, no individualized targeting, and much better privacy settings. That story used DuckDuckGo to advance the agenda of the reporter, an agenda which had nothing to do with what DuckDuckGo is or how it actually works. The journalist, like many of the “right-wingers” he criticized, does not seem to have a firm grasp on what DuckDuckGo actually is.)
However, when Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022, DuckDuckGo promptly suspended its partnership with Russia’s Google-equivalent. In so doing, DuckDuckGo expressly cited to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
To be sure, Yandex, like China’s Baidu, has close ties to the Russian government – and while the entirety of my search experience with Yandex consists of using its Webmaster Tools for indexing and testing its reverse image search functionality, I will say with some confidence that it would be a terrible tool for finding objective information about topics deemed sensitive by the Russian government, much like Bing China would be for finding information about topics deemed sensitive by the Chinese government. I can see why DuckDuckGo, in its discretion, opted to suspend its limited partnership with Yandex, especially in light of the fact that the vast majority of DuckDuckGo’s users most likely never saw results pulled from Yandex in any event. Now you can probably see where this is going, but first we need to take a look at another story.
Shortly before DuckDuckGo suspended its Yandex partnership, its CEO, Mr. Gabriel Weinberg, posted a Twitter thread stating that DuckDuckGo was “rolling out search updates that down-rank sites with Russian disinformation.” This caused some controversy since it did not seem entirely in accord with DuckDuckGo’s reputation – so Mr. Weinberg backtracked somewhat to explain that down-ranking is not coextensive with blacklisting. That is, you could still find articles from Russia Today on DuckDuckGo, they would just be down-ranked. Contrast that with an attempt to find images of the Tienanmen Square protests in June 2021 or The New Leaf Journal in DuckDuckGo in January 2022, both of which are actually impossible to find on the search tool.
I decline to get into the whole down-ranking controversy here, not least because it is not at all clear to me that DuckDuckGo itself down-ranked anything having to do with Russia or even has the capability to do so in light of its extreme dependency on Bing – which I note again is obvious from the fact that The New Leaf Journal is blacklisted from DuckDuckGo as a result of its being blacklisted from Bing. However, I cannot help but notice that while Mr. Weinberg had much to say about Russian news outlets, he has had very little to say about DuckDuckGo’s censoring results that offend the sensibilities of Mr. Xi Jinping. Now, one may note that I just said that DuckDuckGo is essentially a Bing front-end and I doubt that Mr. Weinberg even had the ability to down-rank Russian state media sources. This is true, but it is also true that according to Mr. Weinberg, DuckDuckGo could alter the rankings of Russian state media sources.
If that is true, why could he not do the same for China? How is it that DuckDuckGo can down-rank Russia today but cannot ensure that Bing’s censorship of information unfavorable to the Chinese Government does not affect DuckDuckGo? On this subject, Mr. Weinberg was much less talkative. In fact, try as I may, I could not find any comment from him about the dangers of Chinese state media, which should have been well apparent to Americans by June 2021, or about criticism of Bing’s censoring its results. For someone who would claim several months later that he could down-rank results, DuckDuckGo made no statement with respect to actions it was taking to ensure that its users are not affected by the decisions made Microsoft regarding the Chinese version of Bing. Similarly, I see no statement from DuckDuckGo about Bing’s blocking certain autosuggestion results in 2022, which also, according to the report authors, affected DuckDuckGo’s own autosuggestion functionality.
I am being led to believe that DuckDuckGo simultaneously has the power to down-rank Russian media sources from Bing’s index on its own initiative but lacks the power to so much as address the censorship of search queries in the United States that would offend the Chinese Communist Party. Allow me to add as well that DuckDuckGo has no presence at all in China – it was banned there in 2014 – so it can hardly be its own efforts to appease Chairman Xi at issue here. Call me a cynic, but something is not adding up.
The fundamental issue with our current search situation is that way too much depends on the decisions of Google and Bing. The most popular U.S. alternatives for general searches largely rely on Bing. Any arbitrary and capricious decision made by Google or Microsoft (especially Google given its nearly universal dominance in search) has the potential to affect the vast majority of search users around the world – even many of those users who mistakenly think that they are using a genuine alternative.
I conclude this article with a some advice which somewhat cuts against two articles I wrote about general-use search engines back in 2021. First, if you are using an alternative to Google or Bing and you have a particular interest in the fact that it is supposedly an alternative, make sure that you understand where the results are coming from. I maintain that DuckDuckGo is a worthwhile product and project, despite some criticisms that I hope it earnestly works on addressing, but only if you are using it as a better, privacy-focused version of Bing and not under the mistaken idea that the results in DuckDuckGo derive from a different source. Second, do not rely solely on one search source. I keep search engine shortcuts for front-ends for Google and Bing as well as shortcuts for genuinely independent search engines. If you are in the market for alternatives, actually try search engines with their own indexes, from general-use options such as Brave Search (granting some questions about its current state of independence) and Mojeek to smaller options like InfoTiger and very niche picks like Marginalia. Finally, do not rely on large search indexes – independent or otherwise – for anything. I have many shortcuts for the search tools for specific sites. For example, if you want to search The New Leaf Journal, you can always use our onboard search, add us as a custom search engine to your browser, or run a domain-specific search using a bigger search engine that does not rely on Bing’s index. Searching within sites or using a search engine to search a site is often more fruitful than fishing through the results of a broad web search.