Microsoft’s Bing search engine briefly blocked images and videos of the famous “tank man” of Tiananmen Square on Friday, the anniversary of China’s massacre of pro-democracy protesters in 1989, in what the company said was an error.
Users outside China reported that the search engine had returned text results for “tank man” — as the unknown person, carrying shopping bags, who blocked a line of tanks in central Beijing after the killings has become known. But Bing’s video and image tabs displayed no references to the event.
It was unclear how geographically widespread the filtering was.
The “tank man” images are routinely blocked within China, as are other references to the military’s crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protesters, which left hundreds or more dead.
Microsoft did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A Microsoft spokeswoman said in a statement that the filtering was due to “accidental human error” and that the company was working to resolve the problem. By early Saturday, the site was once again returning the video and image results.
Microsoft is the only major foreign company that runs a censored search engine inside China. It has struggled to appease the country’s regulators, who heavily censor the internet and worry about the security of technology made by American companies. For its part, the United States government has increasingly punished Chinese companies that it says are tied to online repression and surveillance.
China’s internet censorship usually gets even tighter around the anniversary of the Tiananmen killings. The authorities block everything from pictures of candles and tanks to oblique references invented by internet users to get around the controls, like using “May 35” to mean June 4.
Occasionally, that censorship spills over the Chinese borders. Last year, the video-chat app Zoom disrupted several virtual commemorations of the Tiananmen crackdown that activists hosted. The company ultimately restored the activists’ accounts and said that its blocks should not have affected people outside China.
Microsoft began offering a filtered version of Bing for China in 2009. Within the country’s borders, a search on Bing for the Dalai Lama, for example, turns up Chinese state-media accounts that accuse the religious leader of stirring up hatred and separatism. Outside China, it brings up sites like Wikipedia.
In 2019, Bing briefly disappeared from the Chinese internet, raising fears that one of the country’s few alternatives, however imperfect, to the Chinese search engine Baidu had disappeared.
Microsoft has tailored other products to meet China’s demands. It has worked with China Electronics Technology Group, a state-run electronics maker with close ties to the military, to offer a version of its Windows software that the Chinese government considers secure. This past week, President Biden barred Americans from investing in that company and 59 others in China, on the grounds that they are involved with surveillance technology that the authorities use to repress dissent and religious minorities.
Microsoft’s professional social network, LinkedIn, runs a separate, filtered version of the site inside China. In March, China’s internet regulator rebuked the company’s executives for not censoring sensitive political content before a key meeting of Chinese lawmakers.
Another tech company, the Israeli web design firm Wix, was criticized this past week for pulling down a website run by pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong on orders from the police in the city, where China has been stifling dissent. In a statement, the company apologized and said taking the site down had been a mistake.