when is a search engine not a search engine?

Is it okay to remove sites from search results in response to lawsuits? Check out this search and make sure you read the disclaimer at the bottom. Then read about Google agreeing to censor their results in China, begging the question “Are censored results better than none at all?” Gmail and Blogger will also not be available to Chinese users of Google. As a quickie example, you can see the results for Tiananmen Square searches: US Google, Chinese Google, Chinese Google search using Chinese characters. The Chinese searches have the disclaimer “据当地法律法规和政策,部分搜索结果未予显示” or “In accordance with local laws, regulations and policies, part of these search results are not displayed.” This is all in addition to other blocking strategies, commonly referred to as The Great Firewall of China. However in this case Google.cn doesn’t just block searches for keywords, it blocks selectively sometimes without saying that it’s doing so. Slightly more explanation and intrigue over at Search Engine Watch, Google Blogoscoped and Google’s own official blog.

Why does this matter to librarians? Well, it’s obvious how it matters to librarians in China. It also calls into question the very idea of objectivity in search engines everywhere. As Google spends more time and effort currying favor with librarians trying to show how sympatico they are, this move is a departure from expanding access. People who search Google.cn for topics like Tibet or Falun Gong (or possible even other less innocuous topics) won’t just find an absence of results, they’ll find results that are skewed towards the Chinese government’s policies about those topics. That’s wrong. Pundits argue that this is a sensible move for Google from a business perspective, and I won’t debate that, but it does serve to starkly highlight the differences in saying “free acces to information” if you’re a for-profit shareholder-owned company. Any librarian who has had to grapple with a filter with an unknown blacklist will be familiar with the struggles that people on the non-filtered side of Google are going through trying to figure out just what is happening. [metafilter]

7 Responses to “when is a search engine not a search engine?”

  1. Dave Says:

    There is a dance called “East Coast Swing”. Two partners move about in unison, with one leading and the other following. The basic step is rather simple: the lead (usually a man) takes a step to the left, a step to the right, then steps back with the left foot and quickly transfers weight to the right — this last part is called a “rock-step”.

    Believe me, it’s much easier done than said. The key idea to East Coast Swing is that by taking a rock-step you build tension between the two partners. The tension releases and both partners can go into a volley of moves: twirls, kicks, jumps, pushes, etc.

    Without the rock-step there’s no build up of tension. Without tension, there’s not enough momentum between the two partners to make any significant moves. In effect, there’s no dance. None.

    You can choose to see Google as bowing out on one of its principles. But if we choose to see Google dancing East Coast Swing with China, they would be currently engaged in a rock-step. It’s a tense moment that by itself looks like a step in the wrong direction: very much one step back. But in itself it holds promise.

    If you want to teach people how to Swing, you teach them the rock-step. If you can’t even get to the rock-step, how in blazes are you going to teach them anything else?

    Sure, sometimes you have to take a step in opposite directions, but it is essential for moving forward. Certainly learning a few moves of East Coast Swing is better than not learning any at all.

    I suppose that’s a very long winded way of saying, “One step back, and two steps forward.”

  2. Nil Says:

    Your analogy doesn’t make any sense at all dude, I don’t even understand what you’re talking about, except that somehow you think that Google will… what? Do something positive somehow as a result of censoring Google China now. I don’t even get it.

  3. June Says:

    I was very upset last week when I heard about it. And this morning I heard that Microsoft and Cisco Systems have turned down an invite to attend a Feb. 1 congressional briefing on freedom of speech and the Internet in China. Of course not. They are cooperating with the Chinese government in help censoring the free access to information. What they gonna say in Congress? If I were them, I would not go, either.

    As a Chinese librarian I was sorry to see here Google is upholding its value and has won a lot of applause for its refusal to submit search results to DOJ, while at the other hemisphere they abandon the very same principle and follow the flock of Yahoo and Microsoft. Google is not alone, but I was just sad to see a company I like so much was following the same corporate suit. Shame on Google!

  4. Chuck Says:

    I think the first example you mention in the beginning of the post is sufficiently different from the Google China matter to warrant going back for it.

    If material on Scientology is not searchable by Google due to a lawsuit or criminal matter that is, I think, competely different from Google accommodating a dictatorship.

  5. Chuck Says:

    It’s also worth noting that the blogosphere and library-types too have been critical of Google. But there has been no praise for The Big G standing up to the Justice Department.

  6. Sarah Mae Says:

    About the scientology search: it appears that the Church of Scientology asked Google to remove http://www.xenu.net from search results on Scientology but it is the second result when I did the search.

    Maybe I misunderstood?

  7. Kelly G Says:

    I have seen a lot of critism of Google’s compromise with China. However, my understanding is that there were only 2 other choices:
    1. do not supply google search
    2. supply google search and let China’s content police dictate removal on a by the page basis. (removal of a single blog for critism of the government was a recent example).

    There are Chinese based search engine companies such as baidu.com and Zhongsou (search for portal sina). I’m certain these companies undergo censorship as well. In addition, I am not sure how well they search the english language internet. Thus, we are back to the conundrum search engine corporations who wish to expand into the Chinese market encounter: provide access to some information from outside perspectives or provide no access. What is it that Google was supposed to do?

    Personally, I feel that not providing any access would have been “more evil”. I also prefer their solution of simply not offering blogging tools, instead of agreeing to censor content as well. To me, that game would be even more sticky.

    I don’t like the idea that Chinese citizens are unable to access the real history behind events such as Tiananmen Square. However, Western search companies refusing to operate in China would do nothing to change this policy. Again, there are Chinese engines that are quite good. We are not talking about a situation in which Google would have a great deal of influence.

    Companies are to serve their customers. What do you do when you cannot easily access what the customer truly wants — for example, when communication is blocked by a paternalistic government?