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Microsoft's Bing search engine was condemned for censoring images of the famous Tiananmen Square 'tank man' on the 32nd anniversary of the massacre.
Users in the US, Germany Singapore, France and Switzerland were stopped from viewing the iconic photos and video, showing along man in a white shirt standing in front of four People's Liberation Army tanks in the square on June 5 1989.
Anyone who tried searching for the phrase was shown a message saying: 'There are no results for tank man,' with many sharing images of blank search results online.
David Greene, civil liberties director at the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Reuters that content moderation was impossible to do perfectly and 'egregious mistakes are made all the time.'
But he said it could be more sinister: 'At worst, this was purposeful suppression at the request of a powerful state.'
Twitter users were quick to condemn the apparent censorship, with New York Times journalist Thomas Chatterton Williams tweeting: 'This is despicable.'
Scientists Seamus Blackley wrote: 'This is very awful.
You literally exist because of freedom of thought. Aiding in this repression is literally against all you claim to stand for. I'm exceptionally disappointed.
Bing users who searched for 'tank man' on Friday were greeted with this message
Microsoft was accused of censorship for blocking the iconic image, pictured.
A spokesman claimed the issue was an 'accidental human error,' but offered no further information
Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth said: 'Outrageous: on the anniversary of the murderous Tiananmen Square crackdown, Microsoft's Bing search engine suddenly won't return any images if you search for 'tank man,' the iconic photo.
I just tried. Hard to believe this is an inadvertent error.'
Author Joseph Menn tweeted: 'If you are curious about what influence China has on tech companies based elsewhere and operating worldwide, search for images of 'tank man' on Microsoft's Bing.'
Responding to the outcry, Microsoft blamed 'accidental human error,' but offered no further detail on how the mistake had been made.
Hours after Microsoft acknowledged the issue, the 'tank man' search returned only pictures of tanks elsewhere in the world.
The tech giant was humiliated as events marking the 32nd anniversary of the protests and subsequent massacre took place worldwide.
'Tank man' is often used to describe an unidentified person famously pictured standing before tanks in China's Tiananmen Square during pro-democracy demonstrations in June 1989.
The protests ended when China's People's Liberation Army opened fire on protesters.
No definitive death toll has ever been shared, but most estimates claim that between several hundred and several thousand died as a result.
Tank Man's identity has never been confirmed, and it is unclear what happened to him.
Multiple sources claim he was put to death, while others - including Chinese government officials - claim he was allowed to walk away unharmed.
Microsoft said the issue was 'due to an accidental human error and we are actively working to resolve this.'
Smaller search engines such as DuckDuckGo that license results from Microsoft faced similar issues around 'tank man' searches and said they expected a fix soon.
Protesters commemorated the 32nd anniversary of the massacre in Hong Kong on Thursday
Hong Kong - a British territory until 1997 - now finds its democracy under threat from China.
Tiananmen anniversary protesters waved their phones to commemorate the massacre
The city's Victoria Park was blocked off by cops in anticipation of protests to commemorate the anniversary
Rival Google showed many results for the famous image when the 'tank man' search was performed on Friday.
A significant percentage of the Microsoft employees who work on Bing are based in China, including some who work on image-recognition software, according to a former employee.
China is known to require search engines operating in its jurisdiction to censor results, but those restrictions are rarely applied elsewhere.
Bing is one of the few western search engines able to operate in China, but the Chinese version of the website operates in line with the communist government's strict censorship rules.
Tensions between the US and China have been rising in recent weeks amid fresh claims that COVID-19 leaked from a virology lab in Wuhan.
Last month, actor John Cena was condemned after saying he was 'very sorry' for describing Taiwan as a country.
China maintains the island is part of its territory, and that the two nations should be reunited - by force if necessary.
But Taiwan proudly declares itself an independent democracy.
Cena's groveling apology comes amid allegations of Hollywood hypocrisy.
Producers are desperate not to offend China for fear of having their movies banned from a potentially huge audience, while regularly lecturing Americans about injustices at home.