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MICROSOFT has altered the algorithm of its search engine’s autosuggestion feature to meet Chinese internet moderation policies.
The company is stuck between complying with the nation’s laws and upholding information integrity.
Freedom House, a non-profit organization that studies the well-being of citizens everywhere, gave Chinese political rights a score of negative two out of 40.
Chinese internet freedom was given a score of 10 out of 100.
In a review of 100,000 names searched in both English and Chinese characters from IP addresses in the US, Canada and China, researchers at Citizen Lab found some uncanny changes to the autosuggestion feature on Microsoft Bing.
“We consistently found that Bing censors politically sensitive Chinese names over time,” Citizen Lab wrote. “Their censorship spans multiple Chinese political topics.”
Political characters from China’s past and present were absent from autosuggest – searches for President Xi Jinping’s name and the phrase “tank man” were scrubbed.
The names of pornographers and other adult content creators were also removed from autosuggestion.
This erasure affects internet users everywhere – Citizen Lab determined that these acts of censorship were understandably applied in China but also in North America.
Reporters at The Register wrote, “if people stop searching for the terms, they stop being suggested and thereby influence search behavior.”
Some names were censored not for political or sexual reasons but as “collateral censorship” – for example, Dick van Dyke, an American actor, was censored for his first name.
Microsoft responded to the coverage and said “We addressed a technical error where a small number of users may have experienced a misconfiguration that prevented surfacing some valid autosuggest terms and we thank Citizen Labs for bringing this to our attention.”
Microsoft and China have long been intertwined.
The company first touched down in China in 1992 and employs 6,000 people there today.
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