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David Talbot

A View from David Talbot

Bing Dinged on Arab Sex Censorship

Report says Microsoft censors even more harshly than Arab nations do.

  • March 4, 2010

At a time when Google is promising to end search censorship in China, a new report has now revealed that Microsoft censors its Bing search engine returns in Arab countries even more heavily than the countries themselves do using national Internet filters. The study covered the United Arab Emirates, Syria, Algeria, and Jordan, and found heavy censorship of anything relating to sex.

“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,” reads a new report from the Open Net Initiative (ONI), a partnership of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard, and the SecDev Group, a company in Ottawa. It adds: “It is unclear, however, whether Bing’s keyword filtering in the Arab countries is an initiative from Microsoft, or whether any or all of the Arab states have asked Microsoft to comply with local censorship practices or laws.”

ONI performed the study by testing the search terms inside the countries. Banned words include “sex,” ” “intercourse,” “breast,” “nude,” and many more in both the English and Arabic language. The investigators also made a curious discovery: Bing engineers remembered to bar ordinary Arabs from searching for the word “penis” but not for the word “vagina.” But they left no stone unturned when it came to blocking words that might lead to sites having to do with homosexuality.

When someone attempts to search most sex-related terms, Bing informs searchers: “Your country or region requires a strict Bing SafeSearch setting, which filters out results that might contain adult content.”

The report comes just two days after a U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill, said during a hearing on Capitol Hill that he’d soon propose legislation imposing civil or even criminal sanctions against Internet companies that don’t do enough to support freedom of expression and human rights abroad. The legislation has not yet been filed.

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