Microsoft is censoring search results in the Middle East: Again!

Ray Walsh

Ray Walsh

July 21, 2015

Evidence has recently surfaced that Microsoft is once more erroneously filtering web search results in and around the Middle East and North Africa. Six years ago, shortly after the release of Bing, the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University published a paper that revealed Microsoft was wrongly enforcing ‘safe search’ across the entire of a geographic zone that it was also mistakenly referring to as the ‘Arabian countries’.

The research paper, which was entitled Sex, Social Mores and Keyword Filtering: Microsoft Bing in “Arabian Countries” tested Microsoft Bing in 4 countries: three in the Middle East (which were characterized by similar but differing levels of censorship ideals), and one in North Africa (Algeria) where there was no evidence of a need for political or social censorship.

The paper revealed that Microsoft Bing was censoring all sexual, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) searches in a large block of countries, ultimately leading to a lift in Bing’s automatic ‘safe search’ parameters, and also a correction of the mislabeled region.

Now, despite the fact that Microsoft is a participant in the Global Network Initiative (GNI), the firm is once more blanket censoring content derived from sexual keywords, including all searches relating to nudity, and LGBT. This decision stands in stark opposition to their commitment to GNI, which seeks both to prevent internet censorship by authoritarian governments, and to protect the Internet privacy rights of individuals.

According to Electronic Frontier Foundation, Bing is censoring not only in countries where it has had a legal request to do so but, alarmingly, also many countries nearby. In those locations, entering keywords of a sexual nature are responded with the following message,

‘Your country or region requires a strict Bing SafeSearch setting, which filters out results that might return adult content. To learn more about SafeSearch requirements in your country or region, see How Bing Delivers Search Results.’

Of course, the repercussions of blanket censoring using keywords alone are that other materials, that ought not to be censored, are also filtered out as part of the service. Searching for William S Burroughs’ novel ‘Naked Lunch’, for example, also returns the same ‘safe search’ message.

Clicking on the link at the end of the message takes you to another page that describes in more details how Bing delivers its safe search results,

‘Bing categorizes certain countries as strict markets. In these strict markets, we might restrict the display of adult content (as locally defined), and because of the local customs, norms, and laws, we might limit SafeSearch settings only to “strict.” Set to “strict,” SafeSearch filters the display of explicit search results in images, videos, and text. Markets that are limited to “strict” include China, India, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Middle East, Singapore, Thailand, Turkey.’

While filtering results in locations where it has been requested to do so for legal reasons, is acceptable behavior, screening in countries where it has not had such requests – because of what it considers to be local social norms – is very problematic.

Cory Doctorow from EFF points out that there are massive differences between the social norms of the countries in question,

‘If indeed the House of Saud – for example – demands a high degree of network censorship, then MSFT is acting as an agent of Wahhabism, enforcing the autocratic dictates of a repressive regime against its neighbors simply because they can’t be bothered to lift a finger not to.’

Microsoft has responded by saying that users in affected countries can quickly change their market location in user settings. However, EFF feels that Microsoft should only enforce censorship as a very last option and that even then filtering should only happen under duress of strict legal necessities.

For this reason, and due to its continued involvement with the Global Network Initiative (an NGO that seeks to fight all censorship in authoritarian governments), Microsoft is once more being called out for enabling repression in locations where it has absolutely no need to do so.


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