by Brendan Smith
Microsoft's big investment in its new Bing 'decision engine' is paying some early dividends in the form of glowing reviews and renewed credibility in the search market (even if early share gains are modest). But it is already running up against the 800-pound gorilla that has long bedeviled market leader Google: China's government. The government recently decided to block Bing because of a feature called smart motion preview that allows users to see a preview of videos produced by searches by navigating over them. China (as well as child advocacy groups in the U.S.) says that the feature exposes children to pornographic or violent materials. The move is the latest in a series of moves by the government to install mandatory software filters on PCs sold in China, all steps the government says are aimed at protecting children.
Other foreign websites, such as Google-owned YouTube, Facebook, and Flickr, have also been blocked as a result of China's stepped-up efforts to regulate Internet content access. Though protecting children is the stated aim of the policy, these moves come at a time when the Chinese government is concerned about commemorations of the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown and nervous about the explosion of ethnic violence in its restive Xinjiang region. Many observers, therefore, think the more stringent regulations are more about asserting political control than shielding young eyes.
Western Internet sites are caught between a rock and a hard place with China's latest regulations. Failure to comply shuts them out of the huge and growing Chinese market, but appearing to bend to what many view as censorship opens them to criticism that they are complicit with China's authoritarian government, and that may hurt them in Western markets.
The implications of these moves are considerable for foreign companies trying to wrest market share from Beijing-based leader Baidu. Google has recently lost further share to Baidu, and Bing will have to overcome this latest hurdle if it wants to make a splash in China. Western technology companies need to consider how their products and services may be affected by government policies on content, and whether gains they may make by complying with Chinese rules are worth the cost they may incur elsewhere.