China just blocked its last major foreign search engine

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Microsoft’s search engine Bing, the last major foreign search engine available within China, was temporarily blocked this week.

On Wednesday (Jan. 23), Chinese users began noticing that they couldn’t access cn.bing.com, the China-facing site Microsoft launched a decade ago. The Financial Times reported (paywall) that the service has been blocked following a government order, citing two unnamed sources. One of the sources said that state-run telecom China Unicom had confirmed the government order to block Bing.

Microsoft said that Bing “is currently inaccessible in China” and the firm is “engaged to determine next steps” in an email statement to Quartz Thursday (Jan. 24). The firm declined to comment further.

Bing offers China’s internet users one of their few alternatives to the monopoly of search engine Baidu, which accounts for a 70% share of China’s search market, followed by domestic search engines like Alibaba’s Shenma, and Sogou.

Just before Bing became inaccessible, Chinese internet users were fuming over an article by a media researcher pointing out Baidu’s shortcomings, using a number of searches to show how multiple results direct to one particular Baidu platform. At one point, online news outlet Jiemian reported that Microsoft had told it that Bing was inaccessible because of a surge in user traffic (link in Chinese)—the Jiemian news report disappeared (link in Chinese) this morning.

The New York Times noted that Bing has tried to play by China’s rules over the years, for example by prominently showing results relating to China’s claims that the Dalai Lama stirs up hatred and separatism in the country when searching within China for information on the Tibetan spiritual leader—yet it will point to sites like Wikipedia, which is also inaccessible in some parts of China, when doing the same search outside of the country. Microsoft has in the past acknowledged that its China searches meet the government’s “legal requirements.”

China tech watchers pointed out that such compliance is not enough to avoid falling on the wrong side of internet censors—a lesson perhaps for Google, which reportedly has been contemplating a return to China with a tailored search engine after it shuttered its China-facing service in 2010.

By late Thursday Bing access was restored, Microsoft said in a statement.

“Periodically there are issues that arise, and sometimes those issues do lead to our service or some other services being blocked,” Microsoft president Brad Smith said in

an interview with Fox Business Network

this week at the World Economic Forum in Davos. “And it is an area where we understand we don’t have the same legal freedom that we do in other countries, but at the same time, we stick to our guns. There are certain principles that we think it’s important to stand up for.”

Update, Jan. 25: This story was updated to note that Bing is again accessible in China, and to add remarks by Microsoft president Brad Smith.