25/01/19 UPDATE: China’s block of the Bing search engine seems to have only lasted a day. A spokesperson from Microsoft confirmed that “Bing was inaccessible in China, but service is now restored” – Chinese internet users have backed this up on social media. It is still unclear why the service was blocked in the first place, though.

28/01/19 UPDATE: Reports are now stating that the cause of the blocks may have been a technical error rather than intentional government censorship, although just how the supposed error arose is still unclear. Chinese government officials and Microsoft are both yet to comment on the issue. Our initial, unaltered report, follows.

On Wednesday evening, Chinese internet users began complaining that they were unable to access Bing, Microsoft’s search engine. After citizens took to Twitter and Reddit to voice their frustrations, the company confirmed that “Bing is currently inaccessible in China and [we] are engaged to determine next steps”.

Chinese authorities are yet to provide an explanation for the block – as a matter of fact, they haven’t even confirmed it yet. According to a report by the Financial Times (subscription only), China Unicom, one of the biggest telecoms companies in the country, received an order from a government agency to block the site. Anyone who attempts to visit it will simply receive a connection error message.

Research by StatCounter suggests that Bing only accounts for 2% of the search market in China, although that doesn’t make the incident any less significant.

Bing was one of the last major foreign search engines available in the country and had only managed to survive this far by following all of the censorship rules put in place by the Chinese government.

There’s speculation that the block is part of a program recently launched by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), designed to remove all online content related to pornography, violence, gambling, misinformation and hate speech. According to the Wall Street Journal (subscription only), China has blocked approximately 773 websites and shut down 9,382 apps in the past three weeks alone.

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened – China has a long history of blocking access to popular sites and apps without any sort of warning or explanation. Encrypted messaging service WhatsApp was made unavailable in 2017, while social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter have been banned since 2009.

The Chinese government defends its draconian approach to internet censorship by stating that it only wishes to stop “the spread of information that contains content subverting state power, undermining national unity [or] infringing upon national honour and interests”. Any foreign companies wishing to provide their services in the country are subject to in-depth government checks.

The only way to bypass these restrictive online blocks is by using a VPN, although only a handful will still provide reliable access during these more aggressive crackdowns. In fact, the situation worsened so much that in 2017 Apple was forced to remove all of its VPN apps from the Chinese version of the App Store.