When Chinese Internet users discovered that they could not access Microsoft’s Bing search engine webpage, the first thought that came to most people’s minds was that the website had been blocked by state censors. However, the service came back online soon and it was found that the accessibility issue was caused by a technical error and not from the censorship department.
Users trying to access Bing were redirected to an error page. Chinese citizens typically get the same result when trying to access blocked websites like Google. As a consequence, it was first thought that Bing was blocked in China.
However, engineers at ExpressVPN ran some tests and found that the outage was the result of a technique known as “black-holing.” Using this method, the traffic of a website is just cut off en route. This is usually done at the ISP level. Since the state censors usually employ DNS poisoning to block websites, the Chinese regime’s intentional involvement in the Bing outage was ruled out.
Bing has been the only international search engine in operation in China for a long time, mostly because Microsoft has created a local variation according to the government’s guidelines. Recently, Microsoft President Brad Smith admitted that it was difficult for them to operate Bing in China due to all the restrictions placed on them.
“We do adhere to the global network initiative set of principles when it comes to search services in China. And that does mean that there are days when there are either difficult negotiations or even disagreements,” he said in a statement (Bloomberg).
China’s repressive Internet censorship
Though the Bing blackout was only the result of technical errors, it still remains a fact that any website in China can potentially be blocked by state censors if they display content deemed to be against communist policies. Top international websites like Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and thousands of others are already blocked.
While some citizens resorted to VPNs to dodge the “Great Firewall” and access foreign websites, the government is coming down hard on VPN users. Last year, several people were forced to pay huge fines for using VPNs. Another big issue with censorship is state propaganda that blocks online discussion of sensitive issues.
“Propaganda departments exist at the central, provincial, municipal, and prefecture levels. Each level is responsible for monitoring public discussion in its geographic jurisdiction and can be penalized for failing to address public crises that attract significant attention in cyberspace. Some activists complain that local propaganda officials usually censor petition posts to prevent the spread of information that correspondingly blocks the involvement of more netizens. Without a broader exposure on protest issues, it is difficult for local activists to gain more public support and conduct future mobilization,” according to Hong Kong Free Press.
In 2017, the government passed new legislation that mandated all online news websites be monitored by editors approved by the government. Google is believed to be involved in developing a censored search engine for the Chinese market, a move that has been met with huge protests across the world by Internet rights activists.
Currently, homegrown company Baidu is the biggest search engine in China. It religiously follows state policies and purges content that shows the communist regime’s horrific side like the Tiananmen Square massacre, persecution of Falun Gong practitioners, and the repression of the Uyghur community.