On the 32nd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, Big Tech search engines led by Microsoft censored image results across the world for "tank man," a reference to the lone protester who stood in front of Chinese tanks.
Google's Threat Analysis Group director Shane Huntley first pointed out the phenomenon. "I know Microsoft censor for the CCP in China, but this search is from the US," Huntley tweeted Friday. Security researcher Kevin Beaumont also tweeted the same empty result from the United Kingdom.
"There are no results for tank man," the Bing website reads after searching for the term. DuckDuckGo followed suit, an internet search engine that distinguishes itself from others in the industry by emphasizing the protection of user privacy.
While searching "tank man" returns the relevant web results, it's the image tabs on Bing and DuckDuckGo that's under scrutiny. Surprising many online, Google appeared to be the only search engine that queried what was inputted by users.
Queries in Germany, Singapore, and other countries including the United States also provided no results, Reuters reported. Users connecting from France and Switzerland confirmed the censorship to Vice. China's government is known to require search engines operating in its jurisdiction to censor results.
A spokesperson for Microsoft told freelance journalist Mikael Thalen that an "accidental human error" is to blame for missing images of "tank man" on its Bing search results. "We are actively working to resolve this," the spokesperson said.
DuckDuckGo told Thalen via press statement that the search engine relies on Bing for image search results and therefore was also affected by the "tank man" issue. The company added that it does "not have any active presence" in China due to being blocked by the country's government, Thalen reported. Vice verified that the issue also impacts image searches on Yahoo, which also uses Bing.
"I kinda feel like 'human error' isn't an adequate answer to why something this specific happened," commented Tablet magazine associate editor Noam Blum. "An extremely focused and date-specific scrub like this isn't just a whoopsie."
Blum further explained on Twitter that specific queries on the topic will yield reluctant results, but anything more generalized is "sanitized."
"And even that is iffy," Blum noted. Bing results for "Tank Man Tiananmen" shows a photoshopped meme as the first result on the search screen. "In case you're wondering if this is deliberate, look how tricking the algorithm by using 'sq' instead of 'square' brings up real results," Blum demonstrated.
Thalen observed that when he clicked on Bing's image search suggestions such as the iconic "tank man" photo displayed as an icon in the upper left-hand corner, none of the image search results show that particular photograph.
The phrase "tank man" is often used to name an unidentified person pictured standing before tanks in Tiananmen Square during the June 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations. The query's suppression has since raised concerns about possible censorship around the Tiananmen Square crackdown anniversary.