Microsoft has blamed “accidental human error” for its search engine Bing failing to produce any results for ‘Tank Man’ on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests.
‘Tank Man’ refers to an image of a lone protester standing in the path of an oncoming tank during the suppression of student-led protests in Beijing‘s Tiananmen Square in June 1989.
Although the man was never identified, it has become the defining image of the military crackdown, which many refer to as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and killed between hundreds and thousands of people.
It’s one thing for Microsoft’s Bing search engine to censor material inside China on Beijing’s orders, but it is a whole new level of censorship for Bing to censor this iconic image of “tank man” in Tiananmen Square for searches conducted overseas. It did. https://t.co/STv3hU8OoK pic.twitter.com/dU4zLghg3M
— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) June 5, 2021
Although China applies censorship to search engines operating in its jurisdiction, it has no power to ban content beyond its borders.
A large number of Microsoft employees who work on Bing are located in China.
Kenneth Roth, of Human Rights Watch, tweeted to say the “inadvertent error” was “hard to believe”. “Outrageous,” he posted.
David Greene, civil liberties director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation said that content moderation often poses challenges for search engines and “egregious mistakes are made all the time”.
But he added: “At worst, this was a purposeful suppression at the request of a powerful state.”
Chinese communities across the world gathered in solidarity to remember those lost in the protests, who were fighting against rapid socio-economic change in the post-Mao era.
In Hong Kong, where China passed national security laws earlier this year, protests were less busy than usual after authorities banned them. People wore masks and held up their smartphones in lieu of the usual candlelit vigil.
The organiser barrister Chow Hang Tung, 36, was arrested hours before it took place.
Microsoft said in a statement that the issue was “due to an accidental human error” and the site was “actively working to resolve this”.
The ‘Tank Man’ images had returned to the search engine in the UK early on Saturday.