Microsoft's Bing could not be accessed in China on Thursday due to an accidental technical error rather than for censorship reasons, according to Bloomberg News sources.
Access to Microsoft's Bing search engine has since been restored in China, a Microsoft spokesperson confirmed to ZDNet. The company did not provide further explanation for why the outage occurred.
Microsoft president Brad Smith told Fox Business on Thursday that its search engine was down.
"People in China cannot access Bing, this is not the first time it's happened. It happens periodically … we're still waiting to find what this situation is about," he said.
Smith also acknowledged that Microsoft had fewer legal rights in China than in other countries.
"There are certain principles that we think it's important to stand up for," he said. "And we'll go at times into the negotiating room and the negotiations are sometimes pretty darn direct."
With Bing, Microsoft has tried to play by China's censorship rules. For example, the search engine filtered out both English and Chinese language search results of politically-sensitive terms such as "Dalai Lama" and "Tiananmen", according to China-based freedom of speech advocacy blog GreatFire.org.
Both the US and China have already levied tit-fot-tat tariffs on $34 billion worth of goods, and Trump made good on his pledge to escalate the trade war, directing Lighthizer to find another $200 billion worth of products to hit.
Google, Bing's competitor, withdrew from China in 2010 in opposition to its censorship rules after revealing it had been hacked by the government. It has since moved from its policy of opposing censorship, having made plans for a censored version of its search engine -- code-named Dragonfly -- for China.
"Providing the Chinese government with ready access to user data, as required by Chinese law, would make Google complicit in oppression and human rights abuses," the November letter created by Google Employees Against Dragonfly states.
The internet is heavily censored in China. In 2017, China shut down over 128,000 so-called harmful websites, at the time, saying that it was part of efforts to maintain "social stability", taking on "vulgar" and pornographic content as well as the unauthorised dissemination of news.
Since the fourth quarter of 2018, many Chinese reports have suggested that major internet firms in the country are either scaling back or freezing hiring, or axing staff due to lukewarm growth and unfavourable prospects.
Chinese businesses are projected to spend US$256.61 billion on tech this year and another US$272.84 billion in 2020, focusing their investments on transforming operations and improving efficiencies as they brace themselves for an uncertain geopolitical climate, says Forrester.