Bing to Middle East: No Sex Searches for You

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.—Bing is following in Google’s footsteps in more ways than one. A new report by the OpenNet Initiative (ONI) reveals that the Microsoft search engine is filtering search results in the Middle East. What’s more, ONI says Bing is censoring results more heavily than the countries themselves. Considering that the regimes in question are some of the most restrictive in the world, that’s saying a lot.

“We manually tested the search engine using a set of 100 Arabic keywords and a set of 60 English keywords that would yield results in various content categories, including sex, nudity, dating and escort services, LGBT content, violence and terrorism, politically sensitive content, minority and religious rights, and women’s rights,” ONI reported. “The Arabic keywords tested included classical Arabic terms and various alternatives from different Arabic dialects.”

Testing was conducted between Jan. 2-15, 2010, in four Arab countries chosen for their different levels of Internet censorship. They included the United Arab Emirates (substantial political filtering and pervasive social filtering), Syria (pervasive political filtering and selective social filtering), Algeria (no evidence of filtering), and Jordan (selective political filtering and no evidence of social filtering).

In-country testing resulted in the following:

* Bing filters out Arabic keywords that may return sexually explicit content. Examples of the Arabic keywords found filtered include Arabic terms for “sex,” “porn,” “intercourse,” “breast” and “nude.”

* Bing filters out Arabic keywords that could yield web sites containing LGBT content. Arabic keywords found filtered include terms for words such as “gay,” “lesbian” and “homosexuality.”

* Bing filters out keywords in various sex-related categories. Examples include Arabic terms for “prostitution,” “whore” and “sadism.”

* Bing filters out English keywords that could yield sexually explicit Web sites. The keywords include “porn,” “sex,” “fuck,” “penis” (but not “vagina”), “sodomy,” “homo,” “sexual,” “sexy,” “clitoris” and “anal.”

* Bing filters out English keywords such as “gay,” “lesbian,” “homosexual” and “queer” when searching for images; however, using these words to search for web sites is permitted.

* Attempts to use any of the filtered keywords generates a message in Arabic or English (depending on the interface used) that reads, “Your country or region requires a strict Bing SafeSearch setting, which filters out results that might return adult content.”

“Microsoft’s declared aim from this type of censorship is to filter out ‘results that might return adult content,’” the ONI report states. “However, filtering at the keyword level results in overblocking, as banning the use of certain keywords to search for web sites, not just images, prevents users from accessing—based on Microsoft’s definition of objectionable content—legitimate content such as sex education and encyclopedic information about homosexuality.”

The report also found that Bing censors results more aggressively than some of the countries themselves.

“It is interesting that Microsoft’s implementation of this type of wholesale social content censorship for the entire ‘Arabian countries’ region is in fact not being practiced by many of the Arab government censors themselves,” the report noted. “That is, although political filtering is widespread in the MENA region, social filtering, including keyword filtering, is not practiced by all countries in MENA. ONI 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 testing and research found no evidence of social content filtering (e.g., sex, nudity, and homosexuality) at the national level in countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Libya.”

The report did find, however, that IP-geolocation restrictions were not being applied, meaning that “if a user physically located in an Arab country chooses to use an uncensored version of Bing tailored to another country (e.g., USA or UK), he/she will not experience any keyword filtering even if he/she uses a keywords filtered by Bing for ‘Arabian countries.’”

Ironically, Google, which has been battling, and conceding to, internet censors in China for years, does not engage in the same type of filtering in Arabic-speaking countries. It also is unclear, the report concludes, whether Bing is “acting at the behest of local officials, interpreting local law, seeking to preempt future regulation or attempting to position the company as a good corporate citizen.”

The complete report is available here.