Is Baidu’s Busca Exporting Censorship to Brazil?

by mayukh sen

It’s no secret that Baidu, China’s largest and most popular search engine, censors search results heavily in compliance with the demands of the Chinese Communist Party. Some netizens suspect, though, that this censorship is traveling across borders. Since its launch in January 2000, Baidu’s internal censorship department has increasingly echoed the Great Firewall’s filtering policies. Documents leaked by an employee in 2009 contained an expansive list of Baidu’s blocked search results on sensitive topics. Earlier in 2014, a number of New York-based Chinese-American writers famously lost a battle against the tech giant in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York when they claimed that Baidu was unlawfully restricting access to their articles on pro-democracy movements within mainland China.

Last month, Baidu launched its Brazilian offshoot, Busca – a project that’s been two years in the making. Baidu first entered the Brazilian market as early as July 2012, when it launched Hao123, the company’s flagship Portuguese-language service. Now, Baidu Busca is a full-fledged search engine; it’s Baidu’s second foray into the international arena after the 2007 launch of Baidu in Japan. Japan’s Baidu offshoot isn’t known to censor anything that would require monitoring on the Mainland, though in January Baidu Japan was hit with the accusation that it was spying on its users. Baidu is second to Google in terms of search engine usage in the world, owning roughly 16% of the market share. Given Brazil’s increasingly high connectivity rates, it makes sense that Baidu would extend its reach to such a robust market. The company also intends to reach into Thailand and Egypt in the coming years.

A video showing search discrepancies on Baidu Busca for various sensitive search terms, via William Farris.

In China, Baidu alerts users to the fact that results are being censored – netizens are met with an automated message informing them that, “in accordance with relevant laws, regulations, and policies, some search results have not been displayed.” The censorship of results is made particularly clear in Mainland China, yet this apparently isn’t true for Brazil. Independent blogger William Farris of Fei Chang Dao notes that Busca doesn’t contain such a notice for its users – it curates content that favors the leanings of the Chinese Communist Party without notifying netizens that it’s actively restricting access to content.

Last week, Chinese human rights and Internet censorship researcher Elizabeth Coates reported on major discrepancies between search results on Brazilian Google and Busca, implying that Baidu’s filtering of search results specifically related to politically tense issues in China had carried over to Brazil. A search on Brazilian Google for "o homem do tanque", or Tank Man, turns up what one would expect – the now-iconic images of the rebellious man who stood in the way of colossal tanks in 1989. On Busca, though, the results have curiously little to do with 1989 at all. They resemble what a mainland Chinese search of the “tank man” would yield – innocuous, apolitical images of t-shirts and a story about Egypt.

Farris recently reported that the restrictions may be easing. Initially, as Coates reported, a search of Falun Gong on Busca contained little mention of the human rights abuses carried out by the Chinese government against the group, instead linking to stories from the People’s Daily , which Farris describes as “the official mouthpiece” of the ruling Communist Party. If a Brazilian netizen searches for “Falun Gong” in Pinyin, the sites are no longer censored. It remains unclear, however, whether such Portuguese-language searches as “o homem do tanque” produce filtered results.