Microsoft blocked its search engine, Bing, from returning image and video results for the phrase “tank man” – a reference to the iconic image of a lone protester facing down tanks during the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square – on Friday, the 32nd anniversary of the military crackdown.
References to the pro-democracy protest movement have long been censored in the People’s Republic of China (PCR), where the government maintains strict control over the internet, but the censorship by Bing extended to users outside China’s “great firewall”.
The move came amid the PRC’s crackdown on Hong Kong, where it banned the Tiananmen Square anniversary vigil for the second year in a row, and growing concern over the extent to which China can exert economic pressure to enforce its censoriousness overseas.
Just last week, the American actor John Cena made a public apology for referring to Taiwan as “a country”, an offense to the PRC which insists that Taiwan is not an independent state.
US-based tech companies have long struggled to balance their desire to operate in China’s enormous market with the censorship demands of the government.
Microsoft Bing is one of the few foreign search engines that are accessible in China, because the company has agreed to censor results for sensitive terms such as the Dalai Lama, Tiananmen Square or Falun Gong.
In 2016, the New York Times reported that Facebook was working on a secret tool that would allow a third party to censor the platform for Chinese users in exchange for the PRC allowing Facebook to operate within the country.
In 2018, employees at Google exposed an internal project to build a censored search engine that the company hoped would allow it to re-enter China. Google had pulled out of China in 2010 over censorship and hacking.
A Microsoft spokesperson said: “This is due to an accidental human error and we are actively working to resolve this.”
In 2014, the Guardian reported that Bing was censoring results for Chinese-language users in the US for many of the same terms that Bing censors inside China, such as Dalai Lama, Tiananmen Square and Falun Gong.
The company attributed the results to “an error in our system”.
In 2009, the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a column about receiving seemingly censored results on Bing when he searched for topics such as the Dalai Lama, Tiananmen Square, and Falun Gong using simplified Chinese language characters.
A company spokesman told Kristof that the pro-CCP results were due to “a bug”.