On June 4, 1989, Microsoft blocked images and videos of “Tank Man,” an unidentified protester who was killed during China’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
On Friday, the 32nd anniversary of the event, the photos were removed from Bing, Microsoft’s search engine. They were taken offline by mistake, according to a Microsoft (MSFT) spokesman, who attributed the removal to “human error.” On Saturday, the images resurfaced around the world — outside of China.
Unlike its major competitors, such as Google (GOOGL), Bing is based in mainland China. According to Chinese law, Microsoft is obligated to censor search results for Chinese users, particularly images and information about the Tiananmen Square protests and the subsequent killings. In the weeks leading up to the event’s anniversary, China’s internet censorship usually increases.
On June 4, 1989, hundreds of people were killed in Tiananmen Square. The massacre made international headlines, as did iconic images of “Tank Man” defying the soldiers on the square.
Although Chinese censorship is typically limited to within the country’s borders, Microsoft’s unintentional global takedown isn’t the first time information about Tiananmen Square has been blocked by a foreign company outside of mainland China.
In December, the FBI charged a former Zoom employee with conspiring with the Chinese government to censor meetings. At least four video meetings commemorating the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre were allegedly terminated by Xinjiang “Julien” Jin and co-conspirators last June. According to the FBI, the majority of the meetings were organized and attended by Americans, some of whom were dissidents who had taken part in and survived the 1989 protests.
Tensions between the US and China have risen in recent weeks as a result of China’s alleged surveillance of US businesses operating within its borders. Last week, President Joe Biden expanded a Trump-era ban on American investment in dozens of Chinese companies that the US believes are linked to China’s military.
In response to the threat of Chinese surveillance technology, Biden signed an executive order on Thursday prohibiting Americans from owning or trading securities tied to 59 companies. The original order, signed by former President Donald Trump in November, targeted 31 Chinese firms that “enable the development and modernization” of China’s military and “directly threaten” US security, according to the administration. The new order signed by Biden takes effect on August 2nd.