Microsoft: 'Human Error' Caused Famous Pic to Vanish Online

Company denies censorship led Bing to stifle search results for Tiananmen Square's 'Tank Man'
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 5, 2021 7:00 AM CDT
Microsoft: 'Human Error' Caused Famous Pic to Vanish Online
In this June 5, 1989, file photo, a man stands alone in front of a line of tanks heading east on Beijing's Chang'an Boulevard in Tiananmen Square.   (AP Photo/Jeff Widener, File)

Friday was the 32nd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in China, which means lots of people headed online to peruse articles and pictures of the incident that led to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of protester deaths. One photo that interested parties in several countries couldn't initially find, at least if they were using Bing: a most famous one of "Tank Man," the individual who stood defiantly and all alone in front of a line of government tanks on June 5, 1989. Reuters and Vice report that users in the US, UK, Germany, and Singapore, among others, received the message "There are no results for tank man" when they initiated the search on the "images" and "videos" tabs of Microsoft's search engine. The Wall Street Journal notes that searching for "tank man" on Bing's main page did turn up "hundreds of thousands of results." Users also had trouble finding related images on Yahoo and DuckDuckGo, which license results from Microsoft.

This all led to cries of censorship, though on Friday, Microsoft insisted that wasn't the case. The lack of search results for "tank man" was due to "an accidental human error," the company said in a statement, adding, "We are actively working to resolve this." Per the Guardian, online references to pro-democracy protests in China are often stifled, but this time, the country's "great firewall" expanded outside its own borders. An ex-Microsoft employee tells Reuters that a good number of Bing workers—"including some who work on image-recognition software"—are based in China. The Guardian notes Bing is one of the few outside search engines that China permits, as the company has allowed censorship of such terms as "Dalai Lama" and "Tiananmen Square." When Nicholas Kristof wrote a New York Times column in 2009 of running into apparent censorship when searching for those terms using simplified Chinese characters, a Microsoft rep blamed "a bug." (More Microsoft stories.)

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