Bing ‘censors gay and lesbian searches in Arabic countries’

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

Microsoft’s Bing search engine has been accused of censoring non-pornographic gay and lesbian searches in Arabic countries.

Technology website The Register reports that testing of the search engine in January found it filtered out English and Arabic words related to homosexuality.

The test was carried out by Open Net Initiative, which said that people using the Arabic version of Bing in Arabic countries saw a pop-up message when they searched for certain words.

The message said: “Your country or region requires a strict Bing SafeSearch setting, which filters out results that might return adult content.”

Researchers said that Arabic words which were filtered in website searches included the terms “gay”, “lesbian” and “homosexuality”.

Presumably, this would prevent users of the Arabic version of Bing from accessing information about gay equality, health and news.

Bing filters out English keywords such as “gay,” “lesbian,” “homosexual,” and “queer” when searching for images, however, using these words to search for websites is permitted.

Other terms blocked by the search engine included “porn”, “sex”, “penis”, “sodomy” and “homo”.

However, the Open Net Initiative found that Bing does not place geographical limits on which version of the search engine people can use.

Study authors wrote: “If a user physically located in an Arab country chooses to use an uncensored version of Bing tailored to another country (eg, USA or UK), he/she will not experience any keyword filtering even if he/she uses a keywords filtered by Bing for Arabian countries.

“Additionally, in the case of Arabic keywords, users can sidestep the search engine censorship regime by adding another non-filtered Arabic keyword to the filtered one.”

Researchers did not find any evidence of Bing blocking Arabic or English terms relating to other censorship issues, such as “democracy”, “equality” or “opposition”.

They concluded: “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.

“Filtering at the keyword level results in overblocking, as banning the use of certain keywords […] prevents users from accessing – based on Microsoft’s definition of objectionable content – legitimate content such as sex education and encyclopedic information about homosexuality.”

Microsoft has not commented on the claims.