It’s June 4, the 32nd anniversary of the infamous 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, when Chinese troops crushed a pro-democracy protest movement by opening fire on and slaughtering hundreds of demonstrators in Beijing.
The Chinese government doesn’t like talking about it, and it doesn’t like when others talk about it, either. It’s near the top of a long list of topics state censors have blacklisted throughout the Chinese media and internet and pressure companies and other nations that do business with China not to bring up. One image, a world-famous photograph of an unknown individual in business attire standing in the way of tanks rolling in to suppress the protests known as “Tank Man,” is particularly touchy. So it’s rather strange that looking for that image on search engines Bing, Yahoo Search, and DuckDuckGo from within the U.S. returned no results on Friday—something Microsoft rushed to fix.
Throughout Friday afternoon, using the image search function on Microsoft-operated Bing using the words “Tank Man” returned the message, “There are no results for tank man / Check your spelling or try different keywords.” (According to Motherboard, the same is true in other countries outside the U.S., including France and Switzerland.) Yahoo Search, which is powered by Bing, returned the results, “We did not find results for: tank man. Try the suggestions below or type a new query above.” DuckDuckGo’s results returned, simply, “Sorry, no results here.” That was taken by some, such as veteran Reuters cybersecurity reporter Joseph Menn, as an example of the influence China wields on overseas tech companies that do business with Chinese firms.
It’s particularly odd because using the general search function (not image-specific) for “Tank Man” returns reams of information on all three engines, including thumbnails of the photo. Using the image search function with the more specific “Tank Man Tiananmen Square” returns numerous images on Bing and DuckDuckGo; using that query on Yahoo image search comes up with a more limited run of 17 results.
Microsoft has done business in China for decades, and Bing is accessible there. Like competitors such as Apple, the company has long complied with the whims of Chinese censors to maintain access to the country’s massive market, and it purges Bing results within China of information its government deems sensitive. However, the company said that blocking image results for “Tank Man” in the U.S. was not intentional and the issue was being addressed.
“This is due to an accidental human error and we are actively working to resolve this,” a Microsoft spokesperson told Gizmodo via email.
As of early Friday evening, searching for “Tank Man” on Bing now returns many results—though the famous photograph only appears in passing in the form of a desktop wallpaper heavily modified to obscure the tanks.
One likely reason all three sites had the “Tank Man” issue is that smaller search engines lack the scale to index the web themselves and thus license their indexes from Microsoft. As of Friday evening, Yahoo’s image results for the query were identical to Bing’s updated version.
DuckDuckGo is blocked within China and thus would seemingly have little incentive to censor, though it also partners with both Yahoo and Bing, the latter of which it licenses its index from. Its results appeared to be in the process of updating as of early Friday evening.
Gizmodo reached out to Verizon Media, which owns Yahoo, and DuckDuckGo for comment. We’ll update this post if we hear back.