China's internet filtering is well-known, but now a new report quantifies its extent, revealing more than 66,000 rules that control the content available through search engines.
According to a report released by Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, a group that conducts cybersecurity research, Microsoft's Bing search engine is the most diligent censor.
China's censorship apparatus has become more subtle and pervasive. Bing and other search engines have developed algorithms that 'hard-censor' searches considered to be politically sensitive. These searches are either not returned or the results are limited to certain sources. These sources tend to be government agencies or state media organizations who follow the Communist Party line.
Jeffrey Knockel is a senior research at Citizen Lab, and the author of this report. You're only getting results from pre-authorized sites.
Researchers at the organization studied eight platforms online that provide search tools. These include the search engines Baidu and Sogou, the social media websites Weibo and Douyin, the ecommerce giant Jingdong, and the social media site Bilibili.
All are subjected to extensive legal restrictions which have for a long time censored criminal activities, obscenity and pornography as well as violence and gore.
Recent restrictions include defamation, false or misleading information about Covid-19 and illegal surrogacy.
The companies each have developed mechanisms to conform to the ever-changing restrictions of the government.
According to the report, Weibo - China's version of Twitter - restricted the search results to only show information coming from official Chinese sources for those who were looking to find out more about the surveillance aircraft shot down by the United States last February.
Baidu has blocked the results of searches that include the leader of the country, Xi Jinping and President Vladimir V. Putin, of Russia, as well as the international warrant issued for the arrest of the Russian president days before Mr. Xi’s visit to Moscow.
Bing had more restrictions than Baidu and more results compared to Baidu. The report stated that Chinese tech companies adopted more regulations. On average, they also restricted search results from a greater number of domains.
Microsoft spokeswoman Caitlin Rouston said that the company was looking into the findings, but they had not been fully analyzed. She said that Microsoft was contacting Citizens Lab to obtain more information to conduct further investigations.
Microsoft is among the few foreign tech companies still operating in China. It has admitted that it was required to comply with China's censorship law, which other companies, including Google, had refused to do.
Microsoft has often faced difficult conditions in China, as its products have been targeted by the authorities. Bing was temporarily blocked in 2019. Microsoft will shut down LinkedIn after seven years of operation in China in 2021. The company cited regulatory and competitive barriers.
Mr. Knockel stated that the study confirmed the argument, which is that foreign tech firms could do little to limit censorship and other government demands. China, for instance, has indicated that it will limit the operation of chat bots using artificial intelligence, which Microsoft already announced for Bing.
Mr. Knockel stated that allowing American companies to do business with Chinese firms would not solve the larger issues of censorship and human rights in China.