Gila's Place

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By Jeffrey Knockel and Lotus Ruan May 19, 2022 

Read the report’s key findings in Simplified and Traditional Chinese

Key Findings

  • We analyzed Microsoft Bing’s autosuggestion system for censorship of the names of individuals, finding that, outside of names relating to eroticism, the second largest category of names censored from appearing in autosuggestions were those of Chinese party leaders, dissidents, and other persons considered politically sensitive in China.
  • We consistently found that Bing censors politically sensitive Chinese names over time, that their censorship spans multiple Chinese political topics, consists of at least two languages, English and Chinese, and applies to different world regions, including China, the United States, and Canada.
  • Using statistical techniques, we preclude politically sensitive Chinese names in the United States being censored purely through random chance. Rather, their censorship must be the result of a process disproportionately targeting names which are politically sensitive in China.
  • Bing’s Chinese political autosuggestion censorship applies not only to their Web search but also to the search built into Microsoft Windows as well as DuckDuckGo, which uses Bing autosuggestion data.
  • Aside from Bing’s Chinese political censorship, many names also suffer from collateral censorship, such as Dick Cheney or others named Dick.

Introduction

Companies providing Internet services in China are held accountable for the content published on their products and are expected to invest in technology and human resources to censor content. However, as China’s economy expands, more Chinese companies are growing into markets beyond China, and, likewise, the Chinese market itself has also become a significant portion of international companies’ sources of profit. Companies operating Internet platforms with users inside and outside of China increasingly face the dilemma of appeasing Chinese regulators while providing content without politically motivated censorship for users outside of China. Such companies adopt different approaches to meeting the expectation of international users while following strict regulations in China.

Some companies such as Facebook and Twitter do not presently comply with Chinese regulations, and their platforms are blocked by China’s national firewall. Other companies operate their platforms in China but fragment their user bases. For instance, Chinese tech giant ByteDance operates Douyin inside of China and TikTok outside of China, subjecting Douyin users to Chinese laws and regulations, while TikTok is blocked by the national firewall. Users of one fragment of the platform are not able to interact with users in the other. Finally, companies can combine user bases but only subject some communications to censorship and surveillance. Tencent’s WeChat implements censorship policies only on accounts registered to mainland Chinese phone numbers, and, until 2013, Microsoft’s Skype partnered with Hong Kong-based TOM Group to provide a version of Skype for the Chinese market that included censorship and surveillance of text messages. Platforms with combined user bases often provide users with limited transparency over whether their communications have been subjected to censorship and surveillance due to Chinese regulations.

Previous research has demonstrated a growing number of companies that have either accidentally or intentionally enabled censorship and surveillance capacities designed for China-based services on users outside of China. Our analysis of Apple’s filtering of product engravings, for instance, shows that Apple censors political content in mainland China and that this censorship is also present for users in Hong Kong and Taiwan despite there existing no written legal requirement for Apple to do so. While WeChat only implements censorship on mainland Chinese users, we found that communications made on the platform entirely among non-Chinese accounts were subject to content surveillance which was used to train and build up WeChat’s political censorship system in China. TikTok has reportedly censored content posted by American users which was critical of the Chinese government. Zoom (an American-owned company based in California) worked with the Chinese government to terminate the accounts of US-based users and disrupt video calls about the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre.

In the remainder of this report, we analyze Microsoft Bing’s autosuggestion system for censorship of people’s names. We chose to test people’s names since individuals can represent highly sensitive or controversial issues and because, unlike more abstract concepts, names can be easily enumerated into lists and tested. We begin by providing background on how search autosuggestions work and their significance. We then set out an experimental methodology for measuring the censorship of people’s names in Bing’s autosuggestions and explain our experimental setup. We then describe the results of this experiment, which were that the names Bing censors in autosuggestions were primarily related to eroticism or Chinese political sensitivity, including for users in North America. We then discuss the consequences of these findings as well as hypothesize why Bing subjects North American users to Chinese political censorship.

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