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Bloomberg Businessweek (March 11, 2024)

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Год выпуска: March 11, 2024

Автор: Bloomberg Businessweek

Жанр: Бизнес

Издательство: «Bloomberg Businessweek»

Формат: PDF (журнал на английском языке)

Качество: OCR

Количество страниц: 64

Bing in Beijing

How Microsoft helps censor what Chinese citizens see online

In spring 2021, just before the 32nd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, users of Microsoft’s Bing search engine in the US and Europe noticed something odd. Bing had stopped displaying famous photographs of Tank Man—the lone protester who blocked an armored column during the pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989. “There are no results for ‘tank man,’ ” announced the search engine in response to search queries. “Check your spelling or try different keywords.”

Asked about the issue at the time, a Microsoft Corp. spokesperson blamed “accidental human error.” According to three people familiar with the matter, the full explanation, which has never been publicly revealed before now, was that Microsoft accidentally applied the blacklist it uses for the Chinese version of Bing to the entire world, providing an unintended glimpse of how it works with Beijing to give Chinese users a sanitized view of the internet.
US internet companies have long struggled with the complications of operating in China. After making significant compromises on issues such as censorship to maintain access to China’s huge market, Google and Yahoo! stopped operating their own search engines there; Facebook, Snapchat and X (formerly Twitter) are unavailable.

Microsoft, by contrast, has continued to run a local version of Bing since 2009 in compliance with Beijing’s censorship requirements. Co-founder Bill Gates has long advocated working closely with China to encourage innovation in health and science—and has dismissed concerns about censorship and the country’s influence on technology. Gates stepped down from Microsoft’s board in 2020 but has continued to visit Chinese leaders; he met with President Xi Jinping in June 2023, Xi’s first with a foreign entrepreneur in years. During the meeting, Xi described Gates as his “old friend.”

Satya Nadella, who’s been Microsoft’s chief executive officer for the past decade, has echoed Gates’ sentiments about the utility of providing internet services even when it means cooperating with authoritarian governments. Nadella and other executives have also downplayed Microsoft’s operations in China. In 2020, President Brad Smith said the country accounted for just 1.8% of Microsoft’s global sales.

Even if China constitutes a small proportion of Microsoft’s revenue, Bing can point to real signs of progress there. It overtook Baidu Inc., the overall market leader, as the top desktop search engine during a five-month period in 2023 and again in January of this year, according to the data tracker StatCounter.

Microsoft has set up partnerships with tens of thousands of Chinese companies in the retail, manufacturing, health-care, automobile and energy sectors. Microsoft said in a Chinese-language article on its website in 2022 that it has a “symbiotic relationship” with its Chinese partners and sees local operations as a way to recruit talent and gain business it wouldn’t have access to otherwise. In September 2022, Microsoft’s head of China, Yang Hou, announced plans to expand the company’s total number of employees in the country beyond 10,000. “Microsoft will continue to strengthen its confidence and determination to develop in China,” he said.

Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC, said in a statement that China’s internet is “free, open, and orderly” and that it welcomes foreign companies to operate in the country. “Meanwhile, foreign-invested enterprises in China should abide by China’s laws and regulations, respect the interests, culture and traditions of the general public, and assume the corresponding social responsibilities,” he wrote.

Complying with such guidelines has always risked blowback in the US, and rising tensions between the US and China, especially over artificial intelligence, could add pressure.

For years critics have said the company’s business in China flies in the face of its stated commitment to human rights and democracy. “It’s upsetting, it’s outrageous,” says Yaqiu Wang, research director for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan at the US-based think tank Freedom House. “Microsoft is one of the largest companies in the world, it is hugely profitable, and it claims to support democracy and human rights. But if you look at its actions in China, it is the opposite.”

Microsoft disputes this view. “Bing is the least censored search engine in China and is often the only accessible source for volumes of information there, even if we must eliminate certain results under Chinese law,” Frank Shaw, Microsoft’s chief communications officer, said in an emailed statement. “We only censor a result in response to a narrow legal order that we conclude obligates us to do so, and we regularly push back when we believe an order doesn’t comply with proper interpretation of Chinese rules. The alternative is to leave the market which would only serve to cut people off from information they otherwise have through Bing.” The company didn’t provide responses to a list of questions about the specific points in this article.

In interviews, more than a dozen current and former Microsoft employees provided for the first time an inside account of the technologically sophisticated censorship system the company has created in China, centered on an expanding blacklist of thousands of websites, words and phrases. They all spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to share information with the media.

The banned phrases—which encompass both English- and Chinese-language searches made on the Chinese version of Bing, cn.bing.com—include those related to “human rights,” “climate change China” and “Nobel Peace Prize,” according to the employees and a Bloomberg Businessweek analysis. Terms such as “Communist Party corruption,” references to “Tiananmen Square massacre,” “tank man,” the “Dalai Lama,” the late Chinese human-rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo and “democracy” are also on the blacklist. Users searching for censored content are greeted with a notification that “results are removed in response to a notice of local law requirement.”

In China, Bing purges Western news websites and Wikipedia. Searches related to alleged abuses of the ethnic minority Uyghur population in China’s Xinjiang region yield results devoid of the specifics of human-rights violations and concentration camps; instead the results are made up of state media news reports that deny abuses and accuse Western governments of waging a “disinformation war against China.” There are also links to travel guides for the region. Searches for many other blacklisted phrases produce results from Chinese government or state media websites, which have been “whitelisted,” meaning they’re never blocked from the results, according to the employees. And, of course, results for searches about Chinese government censorship—and how to circumvent it—are themselves censored.

Bing went live in China on June 1, 2009. This was just before the Tiananmen Square 20th anniversary, and the Chinese government, wasting no time demonstrating to Microsoft how aggressive it was willing to be, abruptly blocked access to the search engine. That triggered panic among Microsoft’s China team, who feared they’d made some technical error and struggled to figure out what had gone wrong. “Later on it became very clear we had been shut down at the network level,” recalls one executive who was involved in managing the fallout. “Traffic to our service just disappeared.”

After a flurry of calls between Microsoft attorneys and Chinese government officials, the restrictions were lifted the following week, and Bing China came back online. It’s not clear if Microsoft made any specific concessions.

Just as Microsoft was getting accustomed to operating under these conditions, Google was giving up. That company had operated its search engine in China since 2006, and people all the way up to senior leadership had bristled as blacklisted subjects grew from hundreds to thousands. In January 2010, following an attack on its infrastructure that Google suspected was an attempt to go after Chinese dissidents who used its services, the company announced it was shutting down operations in the country.

Co-founder Sergey Brin said in an interview at the time that the company had wanted to take a stand against censorship and speak out for “the freedom of political dissent, and that’s the key issue from our side.” He said Google had originally hoped to “help move internet freedoms forward,” but the opposite had happened. Gates criticized Google’s 2010 decision, saying that China’s internet censorship efforts were “very limited” and that building a thriving internet there would have a positive effect. Later, Google planned to again offer a censored search engine in China but backed away from the idea in 2018 when the proposals became public.

Microsoft’s business strategy with Bing has been to show better search results with less advertising clutter than local competitors do, employees say. A major opportunity emerged, they say, in 2016 when the death of a student was linked to an experimental cancer treatment Baidu had promoted on its search engine. Regulators ordered Baidu to remove ads for questionable medical treatments and make it clearer which search results were advertisements. The scandal resulted in an increase in Bing users, according to the Microsoft employees. Baidu has faced more recent criticism for promoting similar ads but has said it’s worked to clean up ads on its platform.

Sometimes, Chinese government officials tell Microsoft that particular topics are off-limits, usually by contacting its lawyers. They might even specify what needs to be removed, according to Microsoft employees.

But it’s more efficient for Microsoft to act on its own. Over time the company has developed a knack for anticipating when Beijing will take issue with particular types of content. In a report published in April 2023, researchers at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab analyzed about 500,000 censored keywords and names across search engines in the country. They found that Bing had less censorship than Baidu overall but that it was more aggressive than Baidu when it came to restricting access to political and religious content.

Such self-censorship is a straightforward business decision, say former Microsoft employees. “If you looked up ‘6/4,’ which is how people referred to the Tiananmen massacre, we would just show nothing,” says the former executive who was involved in Bing around the time of its launch. “It’s a relatively easy business decision just to overfilter and be safe. I think it is a very rational choice. Whether it is the right thing for free speech and whatever is a different question.”

When a Bing user in China enters a search query today, the request is routed via servers located on the Chinese mainland, which apply a filter that ensures censored information is shut out. It’s a similar process to the one Microsoft and Google use to comply with laws in various countries regarding child pornography or copyright. The difference is what’s being blocked.

This censorship technology has come to rely on machine-learning systems that analyze text, images and metadata, which scan web pages to determine whether they may violate local laws or regulations, according to the employees. The software will generate a score for each page to determine its sensitivity, the employees say.

Microsoft says it doesn’t use automation to identify new content to block. Human reviewers with local expertise build the actual blacklist by adding or removing content and also check content that’s been flagged by the automated system. In China this is handled by a small team of engineers, most of whom are Chinese citizens. (Most employees in Microsoft’s Chinese offices are local hires.) The censorship work is considered highly sensitive and is closely guarded within the company, according to the employees.

“The topic list changes over time,” recalls one former engineer who worked on Bing in China. “There are sensitivities. Today searches for ‘Winnie-the-Pooh’ are censored, because Winnie-the-Pooh is used as a derogatory reference to Xi Jinping. Prior to the current administration, that would have been OK. And you are supposed to know these things.”

Whatever the specifics of this evolution, changes to the blacklist almost invariably make it longer. Four former Microsoft employees who worked on Bing say that—independent of one another and over a period spanning eight years—they’d voiced concern to managers and colleagues about the increasing scope of the censorship. Two of the employees say they pointed to Microsoft’s own statement on its human-rights commitments, which says the company is committed to helping people use technology “to defend and promote democracy, good governance, and the rule of law,” as well as to protect and advance “freedoms of opinions, expression, association, peaceful assembly, and other human rights.”

The employees who raised concerns say they were told the company has to comply with China’s laws to do business there. In an answer to internal and external criticism about its work in the country, two of the employees say, Microsoft executives pointed to a company human-rights statement published in 2012, which included the standard justification given by any US tech company operating in countries with authoritarian governments. “Business can most effectively respect human rights through our presence in, rather than absence from, countries that present significant human rights risks,” it said...

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скачать журнал: Bloomberg Businessweek (March 11, 2024)