Microsoft angling to take on Internet searches in China?

An interesting tidbit reported in the Grauniad today; Microsoft seems to be serving PRC government-approved search results to Chinese language users in the USA:

A search on Bing in Chinese for Bo Xilai (薄熙来), the former high-flying Chinese government official now serving life imprisonment for corruption, shows equally different results. The top search result is again Baidu Baike. Wikipedia is the third entry. There are no western reports on the politician on the front page. In English the search is topped by Wikipedia, then by stories from the New York Times, BBC and Financial Times.
I should hasten to point out that it's possible (though not particularly likely) for this ordering of search results to arise from users, not Microsoft company decisions; one significant signal in search engine ranking is the choices of users when presented with a search results page. If 100 users searching for "dancing cats" are presented with the same top ten list of search results on Bing, Bing can gather good relevance data by seeing which of these search results users tend to click on first; better yet, if users click on result #1 and then shortly afterwards result #2, but don't tend to click on result #3, this may indicate that result #1 doesn't work for them but result #2 does, so maybe Bing should serve result #2 first for this search term.

Bing uses a lot of different data for its ranking such as user location, language and previous search behaviour; famously, for "long tail" search results it appears to use the choices of Internet Explorer users searching through Google as one signal. However, this particular case strongly suggests that something more is going on. Chinese users in the USA aren't particularly likely to follow the PRC government line on what results are "relevant"; if anything, I'd expect them to slant towards freedom of information since they tend to be richer than the average American and more likely to work in the tech sector. So if they aren't choosing PRC government approved sites for their search results, who is? The simplest answer is "Microsoft".

The motivation is suggested in the article's final paragraph:

Bing accounts for a small percentage of search in China but has been building up its web services in the country. Microsoft is in the middle of hiring 1,000 new employees to build up its services in China.
Search in China is dominated by the home-grown service Baidu ; Yahoo is big in Japan but not the PRC, especially after Jerry Yang's experience yielding user details to the Chinese government, and Google has repeatedly butted heads with PRC censors in the past after refusing to play the government's censorship game, such as highlighting to Chinese users search terms that might result in the Great Firewall dropping their connection. Bing is a pretty decent search engine with a big corpus of docs from the non-Chinese part of the world, and could probably (with a following wind) do much better than Baidu on Chinese search results if it can build up a good model of Chinese language searching; the Chinese-speaking population of America and Europe is probably a great place to test out result. Of course, if Bing wants to tune its algorithms here then it has to present Western users with the same kind of results that Chinese users would see - hence the apparent censorship.

I don't think any reader of my past blogs has much doubt where I stand on Chinese internet censorship, but I have to commend Microsoft for its commercial sense in taking this approach. If you don't care about whether you're doing the right thing for free speech, it's a perfectly reasonable path towards an income stream of yuan from the hundreds of millions of Chinese users. I do wonder though whether they've thought through how it's going to look in the USA when (not if) they are forced to knuckle under the PRC government's agenda.

Update: Microsoft responds who? not us guv'nor, totally a mistake:

"Bing does not apply China’s legal requirements to searches conducted outside of China," Bing senior director Stefan Weitz said in a statement provided to The Reg.
"Due to an error in our system, we triggered an incorrect results removal notification for some searches noted in the report but the results themselves are and were unaltered outside of China."
Oopsie. I'd be more prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt here if I didn't believe they'd sell their employees' organs to kept their Office monopoly going...

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