By Yoko Kubota | @Kubota_Yoko
Users have been unable to access Microsoft Corp.’s search engine Bing in China, a development that comes as Beijing tightens its grip on the internet and as tensions brew between the U.S. and China over trade and technology.
Earlier this week, frustrations surfaced among internet users in mainland China over the sudden interruption of the local service of Bing, the last major Western search engine available in the country.
Microsoft on Thursday said that Bing has become inaccessible in China and that it is trying to determine its next steps. By late Thursday, some users said they could access the service again, but others were still blocked.
It wasn’t immediately clear why the search engine became unavailable and whether the Chinese government had blocked it. The Cybersecurity Administration of China didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The service interruption comes at a sensitive time for U.S. companies operating in China, as trade disputes between the two countries simmer. U.S. technology companies are considered especially vulnerable to potential Chinese pushback. Foreign companies operating in China, meanwhile, have been bracing for possible repercussions following the recent arrest of Huawei Technologies Co.’s finance chief in Canada.
Mark Natkin, managing director of Marbridge Consulting, a Beijing-based telecommunications, media and technology consulting company, said such service stoppages could indicate a technical glitch, a censorship-compliance issue, or could signal that Microsoft is being used as a bargaining chip by the Chinese government after companies such as Huawei and ZTE Corp. have been penalized or shut out of the U.S. market.
“China may be looking to send a message back that this is a valuable market to which access is not assured,” he said.
China has strict internet censorship policies with a broad range of forbidden content. The country’s cyber censor recently kicked off a six-month effort to scrub what it calls vulgar content from the internet. Major Western internet services such as Google’s search engine, Facebook and Twitter aren’t accessible in the country unless government internet filters are bypassed.
Google, a unit of Alphabet Inc., decided in 2010 to abandon its Chinese search operations to protest government censorship, though The Wall Street Journal and other news outlets have reported it recently tested a censor-adhering version of its search engine for China.
Microsoft’s search engine had remained accessible in mainland China because the company offered a local version that complied with the censorship rules. Some search results, such as those containing politically sensitive keywords, differed from those on the international versions of the service.
A search for information about a 2017 Communist Party Congress on Bing’s international version, for example, included media reports on corrupt officials. The Chinese version gave greater prominence to state media’s reporting on the event.
Microsoft, which entered the Chinese market in 1992, has had an up-and-down relationship with the government. In 2014, its offices in China were raided by Chinese antitrust authorities over sales and marketing practices, though further details haven’t been disclosed. Microsoft has said it is cooperating with authorities in the investigation, which is continuing.
In 2017, Microsoft developed a version of Windows 10 that was customized for Chinese government use in an effort to improve the company’s access to China’s state sector.
The company has also served as a training ground for some of the executives and engineers that run or have helped build China’s biggest tech companies. Microsoft’s main Asia research-and-development center is in Beijing.
China accounts for around 10% of the Redmond, Wash.-based company’s revenue, according to an estimate by FactSet. Microsoft doesn’t disclose revenue by region.
Bing has a 2% market share in China, according to research firm StatCounter. The service attracted some users who don’t want to rely on the dominant local player, Baidu, which holds a 70% market share.
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Baidu faced criticism this week after an online article titled “Search engine Baidu is already dead” went viral. Written by communications researcher Fang Kecheng, the article said Baidu’s top search results often include unreliable information posted on the company’s own platform called Baijiahao. In response to the article, Baidu said it would work to improve its service.