Bing could soon be the big word in Beijing as Microsoft moves to fill the void sure to be left after Internet giant Google blew the doors off its search engine -- and at least briefly, opened the Web to the world's largest censored society.
On Tuesday, Web searches on Google.cn that had formerly been censored appeared to return results to controversial topics, indicating that one day after announcing it was 99.9 percent certain to shut its Chinese search engine, search giant Google may have pulled the plug on censorship in the country. Searches for "Xinjiang independence" and "Tiananmen Square massacre" -- items that the Chinese government would ordinarily censor, return results that are critical of the government, making it appear that filters are no longer working.
Google spokesman Scott Rubin said that censorship had not yet stopped, and he would not confirm whether Google.cn might close. Microsoft has already hired at least three people from Google's operation in China after aggressively pursuing them following Monday's announcement by Google, a person familiar with the matter told the Wall Street Journal.
A Microsoft spokesman said the company has no plans to end its operations in China.
"If we do a great job with the product, then we will hopefully attract more share," a company spokesman told the paper.
Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer and Chairman Bill Gates have said they intend to keep the company in China and continue to comply with local regulations, including the censorship of some political material.
John Palfrey, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, told FoxNews.com the development could be a "substantial opportunity" for Microsoft.
"The challenge that [Microsoft] will face is that they, like any other Internet service, has to struggle with how to comply with local law in China while adhering to global human rights standards," Palfrey said. "For Microsoft executives like Gates, they believe deeply in freedom of expression, and like Google execs, they don't want their users subjected to surveillance."
Palfrey said he's "cautiously optimistic" that Microsoft will be able to find a way to operate consistent with its value while complying with the Chinese restrictions.
"The line that they have to walk is a very tricky one," Palfrey said. "I'm cautiously optimistic but the experience right now with Google is sobering."
Kaiser Kuo, a Beijing-based Internet consultant, said Google's apparent decision will not lead to a significant opportunity for Microsoft, which is "currently not a significant player" among Internet providers in China. Google accounts for about 36 percent of search revenue in China, compared to Baidu Inc.'s 58 percent, according to Analysys International.
"They're caught sort of between a rock and a hard place right now," Kuo said. "On the one hand, this is an opportunity to get in, but they're going to be under a certain amount of scrutiny [to follow Google's lead.]"
Kuo continued, "Microsoft has not had an easy time of it in China and have only cracked the code of it recently. They don't want to take that kind of stand and jeopardize their business."
Google's "apparent righteousness" will lead to plenty of critics waiting to take Microsoft "to task," Kuo said.