Bing was only allowed to operate in China because it chose to comply with the stringent demands of Chinese censors, who run one of the most restrictive censorship regimes on the planet. But on Wednesday, users began to report that they were unable to access the site.
“We’ve confirmed that Bing is currently inaccessible in China and are engaged to determine next steps,” a Microsoft spokesman in Beijing and Hong Kong told Variety, without providing further details. Bing was still inconsistently available for certain users Thursday, and there has not yet been a formal announcement as to whether the block is permanent or government-initiated.
The Financial Times cited two anonymous sources as saying the block comes on government orders, and notes that the type of IP address retrieval error that occurs when visiting cn.bing.com is consistent with the type frequently used by Chinese authorities to block websites. The Cyberspace Administration of China did not respond to a request for comment.
Bing is the latest big U.S. tech service to be blocked in China since the Facebook-owned WhatsApp messaging service was cut off in 2017. Google pulled out of search services in the country in 2010, in part over concerns about censorship and hacking. It seems that the only English-language search engines now left available to Chinese users are extremely obscure ones such as Gibiru or Russia’s Yandex.
Bing’s troubles bode ill for foreign tech companies’ prospects in the Middle Kingdom, showing that even bending over backwards for years to operate on Beijing’s terms may not be rewarded with market access. Last year, it was reported that Google was developing a new search engine for China, but the notion of complying with Chinese censorship appeared to be too much for some of Google’s own staff, who appear to have killed off the project for now.
The apparent suspension of Bing also comes at a time when Chinese leaders are at the World Economic Forum in Davos promoting China as pro-trade and open for business, in contrast to the increasingly protectionist policies adopted by Donald Trump’s administration. Bing’s problems may now sound an alarm for companies like Apple that have increased their reliance on the burgeoning China market.
Beijing has increased government control over the Internet within China to unprecedented levels in the past year, scrubbing the web of any content deemed threatening to the ruling Communist Party. Authorities deleted about 6 million online posts and 26,000 “illegal websites” in 2018, the official Xinhua news agency said earlier this month.
Microsoft has tried its best to toe Beijing’s line. A search for “Tiananmen Square” on Bing’s regular website yields information about the 1989 student-led democracy protests that took place there as the top results, yet the same search on the Chinese platform brings up only state media articles about the square’s touristic value or propaganda events that took place there. Searches on Bing for “Dalai Lama” within China lead to official articles calling him a dangerous separatist; abroad, the search links to his Twitter or homepage.
Bing was never very popular with Chinese users, with its 2% market share as of December dwarfed by the Chinese Baidu search engine’s 70%, the Financial Times said, citing data from website traffic monitor StatCounter. But many in China are dissatisfied with Baidu, which has in recent years come under fire for overuse of paid search results and ads for dodgy medical practices.
Baidu’s NASDAQ-traded shares lost 4.1% to close at $160.39 per ADR on Wednesday after analysts at Citigroup cut their profit forecast for the company, and following publication of a highly critical article, “Baidu Has Died as a Search Engine,” by well-known blogger Fang Kecheng. Pre-market trading on Thursday pointed to Baidu shares recovering more than 1.5%.
Microsoft maintains a research branch in Beijing and plans to open its biggest AI lab in Shanghai. It also owns LinkedIn, which censors content as well in order to operate in China.