The OpenNet Initiative has found that Microsoft Bing censors searches related to gay and lesbian topics in a number of Middle Eastern countries.
The study carried out in the first half of January 2010 found that keywords related to homosexuality had been filtered out in both the Arabic and English versions. When Arabic keywords like ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, ‘porn’ or ‘homosexuality’ were queried, a pop-up message appeared saying, “Your country or region requires a strict Bing Safe Search setting, which filters out results that might return adult content.”
In the English version, use of these keywords is censored for Image searches, but Web searches for gay and lesbian sites are allowed.
Bing searches for ‘gay’ censored in Middle East
Unfortunately, this censorship also blocks out searches related to sex education and gay equality rights.
Bing does not offer users the option to turn off the Safe Search setting in the Middle East.
It was, however, found that if users who are physically present in an Arabic country change their country setting to a version of Bing that is offered in another region, such as North America or Europe, then the censorship does not occur, and users can thus gain access to all the searches that are banned on the Arabic version.
Another way users could initially bypass the censorship was by using another non-filtered keyword along with the filtered keyword. For example, the keyword ‘lesbian’ is filtered but ‘lesbian rights’ was not filtered. This, however, seems to be fixed, and both queries are now being censored.
Surprisingly, OpenNet did not find any censorship relating to other sensitive topics such as politics, terrorism, religious rights or minority issues and gender equality.
As of now, it is unclear whether Microsoft has imposed this censorship upon itself, or is working under instructions from the local authorities.