Will Google's New Hamfisted Censorship On Autocomplete Raise Questions Of Human Meddling?

from the bad-idea dept

One of the key arguments that critics have often made against Google is that the company “meddles” in search results, effectively “picking winners and losers.” Google’s — quite reasonable — response for years has been that it’s all in the algorithm, rather than any personal choices. And, the algorithm was just trying to recommend the best result, no matter what that might be. Indeed, this is a perfect and sensible response. However, after lots of pressure from the entertainment industry (and politicians closely associated with the entertainment industry), last month Google announced plans to start censoring “autocomplete” results, such that “terms that are closely associated with piracy” don’t appear.

As we noted when the announcement was made, this is really difficult to do in any reasonable manner. What’s “closely associated with piracy,” one day becomes a legitimate format the next. Take MP3s for example. Five or six years ago, if Google had made this decision, you would imagine that Google might have decided to block “mp3” from autocomplete — and yet, now, MP3 is the standard that is used around the world in all sorts of legitimate online music stores, including iTunes and Amazon. We pointed out that blocking things like “bittorrent” or just “torrent” would be a mistake of the same nature — as it’s just a standard that has plenty of legitimate uses, even if it’s frequently used for unauthorized copying today.

Unfortunately, whoever was in charge of handling this at Google went for a simplistic sledge hammer approach, with the company now dropping a variety of terms, many of which have perfectly legitimate uses. Many of the choices seem totally arbitrary. As expected, BitTorrent and torrent are now blocked — despite plenty of legal uses, and the fact that BitTorrent itself is a perfectly legal company with tons of companies using its technology for completely noninfringing purposes. In the TorrentFreak link above, there are reactions from a variety of companies, including BitTorrent Inc., RapidShare and Vodo, who all note that this move appears to hurt their legitimate businesses.

And that’s where I wonder if this move will backfire in a big way on Google. While the concept of “search neutrality” may be one of the more ridiculous ideas to come out of Google-haters for years, the fact that the company is now clearly hand-picking “winners and losers” when it comes to searches on these kinds of technologies and services seems like something that will be used as evidence against Google at some point.

Google had a strong defense in the past to complaints of bias, in that it was focused on not meddling with its results. However, while this move doesn’t directly mess with the actual results, by mucking with autocomplete, it is likely to have an impact on the kinds of searches that people do, driving them away from many perfectly legitimate solutions, for no reason other than that the company caved to pressure based on no legal rationale. All this really does is now open the door for others to demand that Google adjust its search recommendations and results in their favor as well. I’m really surprised Google would agree to do this in the first place, let alone do it in such a… simplistic and overly broad fashion.

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Comments on “Will Google's New Hamfisted Censorship On Autocomplete Raise Questions Of Human Meddling?”

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101 Comments
bob (profile) says:

Re: Re: It's a shame

That’s because TorrentFreak is filled with couch potato dreamers who somehow believe that server farms and programmers will just appear because it would be like totally cool if someone would just build it. Wrong. The Torrent world is supported by subscription fees and it’s very professional. It just doesn’t want to pay the content creators.

Google is signalling that it wants to grow up a bit. When they delete piratebay from their search results, we’ll know they’ve finished the journey.

Hephaestus (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: It's a shame

“Google is signalling that it wants to grow up a bit. When they delete piratebay from their search results, we’ll know they’ve finished the journey.”

Actually people will begin not trusting them if they remove the pirate bay. It won’t make the evening news. It will however cause the entire blogosphere to go nuts. It will spread via twitter and facebook. Bing will have sudden rise in usage until they also remove piratebay. Then someone or groups will replace them both. Simple as that …

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 It's a shame

Never trust anyone over 40 (Mike Masnick is soon to reach his expiry date). In online terms, 10 years is a long time, perhaps close to that “over 40” thing.

The Googleites are starting to realize that yes, they do have an impact, and that absolute search neutrality is meaningless to their huge core market place. They probably have figured out that people looking for torrents are unlikely to be clicking google ads or making them any money. There is no reason for Google to be part of the underground economy.

Hephaestus (profile) says:

One of the things that occurs to me is how this is a lawsuit waiting to happen. Google is censoring the word “torrent” which is used in alot of new business models for music and video distribution. They compete in the video arena with YouTube.

With how influential google is in search. They are also choosing which businesses live and which die. Old school dying record labels or new school artists that distribute their music via bit torrent.

All in all not a smart move on googles part, or perhaps it is if they want a lawsuit that they can loose or choose the settlement terms to not censor. Then thats it for future censorship requests of the RIAA and MPAA types. Lets hope the lawyer know to run down the first amendment route on this.

:Lobo Santo (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Doesn’t it say something like:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
… or something like that?

Specifically, it says what the government shall not do.
The flip-side of such a coin, is the rights guaranteed the people by virtue of types of laws which may not appear.

Darryl says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

That would only apply, if the USA was the ONLY COUNTRY ON THE PLANET..

One day you will work out, that you are NOT, and also that really NO ONE CARES about your country..

They dont need to fight you, you are more than capable of self destruction..

The world is just waiting and watching the show ๐Ÿ™‚

Yes, dont worry that no one can afford to buy a house, or to pay to health insurance, or that you crime rate is out of control, or that you owe TRILLIONS of dollars to china, or that you are spending 10 BILLION dollars A MONTH of a failed war. And that you have to borrow money off China to pay for it..

Forget all that, you just focus on what is important (TOO YOU), and that apears to be “how can I download songs and music for free” and “how can I screw up our economy any more than it allready is?”.

I cannot believe just HOW SHALLOW you people ARE,

You country is a freaking BASKET CASE at the moment, and has been for over 10 years, (Thanks BUSH).

Mike, it’s clear you REALLY LIKE to get your teeth into the REALLY BIG ISSUES,, not massive debt, not healthcare, not US and global economy, NO..

The big issue here, is Google Autocomplete !!!!!!!!

No mike it’s JUST THAT IMPORTANT right !!!!!

I mean think of the consequences of this ? how terrible, OMFG google is changing autocomplte.. stop the world I want to get off…..

Hephaestus (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

“You do realize that the First Amendment is only a limitation on the government, right?”

Yes, or someone acting as an agent of the government. We have seen a ton of companies pressured to do the administrations bidding in the past several months. With out a law suit or threat of sanctions do you believe that google would have done this? They have been basically kicked out of the white house, and lost political pull.

Right now we have an out of control white house with people over reaching what is legal. This is more than likely yet another one of those situations.

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

However, while this move doesn’t directly mess with the actual results, by mucking with autocomplete, it is likely to have an impact on the kinds of searches that people do

Not just that! Tthere are plenty of people who would love to consider google liable for autocomplete as well, like what you reported last september from the French courts. That’s the only link I could find off-hand but I remember some other stories about people including Google in their lawsuits because they didn’t like what came up after their name in autocomplete.

Google seems to have completely eliminated its reason for not altering autocomplete results… This seems like it could be particularly nasty for them when it comes to libel/defamation lawsuits.

Eugene (profile) says:

Re: False positives, false negatives

Amusingly, this very thing was pointed out in PCWorld’s article about this. I just tried it myself.

This is mindblowing. A search phrase that’s *clearly* only used when you want to infringe: pirate bay, is okay. Like there’s anything else you’d be looking for. “Oh, I was wondering if there are any bays out there that pirates like to frequent that’s all.” But “torrent” – a word that could mean swiftly flowing water, a downpour of rain, or just generically torrenting legal data – god forbid you search THAT

Hephaestus (profile) says:

Re: Re: False positives, false negatives

“This is mindblowing. A search phrase that’s *clearly* only used when you want to infringe: pirate bay, is okay.”

The piratebay is not competition to the content types. uTorrent with VODO, ZuluMusic, a other apps are threats. Make sure you click to see what they have. New business models that rely on or use free are. On killer show, one killer album, one killer e-book, shows everyone it is possible. Which means people start doing this wholesale.

So I ask, what scare them more piracy, or competition from 2 billion people?

Hephaestus (profile) says:

Re: Re: False positives, false negatives

Sorry I sent this before checking it ….

“This is mindblowing. A search phrase that’s *clearly* only used when you want to infringe: pirate bay, is okay.”

The piratebay is not competition to the content types. uTorrent with VODO, ZuluMusic, and other apps are threats. (Click the link to see what is being developed app wise its neat). New business models that rely on or use free are are happening. This is a new distribution channel they can not control. One that has 250 million users. One killer show, one killer album, one killer e-book, shows everyone it is possible. Which means lots of people start doing this wholesale.

So I ask, what scares them more piracy, or competition from 2 billion people?

Personally, I am thinking about thinking about sucking down the entire gutenburg project, and other out of copyright book sites, and turning it into a uTorrent app.

Darryl says:

Re: Re: it's basically a joke of a system

also a ‘torrent’ can be many things, like a “torrent of water flowing over the dam”

There was a torrent of mud and rocks from that landslide.

A torrent of snow in a avalanche etc.

It’s funny that there is actually a WHOLE WORLD away from the computer and internet.

But looking at web site like this you would think our entire universe revolves around ‘THE NET’…. !!!!!

Get a life guys, (and gals).. ๐Ÿ™‚

All sorts of terrible and nasty things happening in this world, and Mike and TD can only talk about google autocomplete !!!!… what a joke !!!..

Anonymous Coward says:

Search neutrality doesn’t mean supporting illegal activities.

The bittorrent people have of course pulled the usual “we have legal stuff too” argument, which doesn’t really hold much water.

Remember, all searches still work, just not the auto complete. You want to find torr, just type torr and hit enter. End of issue.

leoplan2 says:

US Copyright law fail!!!

I think the problem here is the US copyright law and its abuse. It is not Google’s fault, maybe in the future another search engine will be forced to censor results… and will you boycott it? Will you say they are doing a bad practice?. Just think for a moment please…

And remember the USA is the nation of “freedom and democracy”… US companies trying to ban, or kill software freedom (free software), the FCC trying to kill net neutrality, the goverment trying to track Internet users, the MPAA and RIAA censoring the Internet… =(

Adam says:

Am I the only one who doesn’t give a crap about autocomplete? The actual search results aren’t filtered, only the autocomplete, which, depending on how you normally access Google, you may not even see anyway. It’s a neat feature but when I go to search for something, I know what I’m going to search for, I don’t need autocomplete to tell me.

I think this is not a big deal and people are making it seem like Google is censoring search results when they aren’t. You could make a slippery slope argument, but you can ALWAYS make a slippery slope argument, and up to this point Google hasn’t indicated that they are going to censor any (i.e. non-spamblog) search results.

Anonymous Coward says:

Google hasn’t prohibited a single search you want to make. All it’s trying to do is offset the fact that people who just want information on a movie or album are often getting top suggestions (not search results, SUGGESTIONS – an important distinction, automated or not) from Google that they append their search with “torrent” or “rapidshare” or whatnot. If that’s what they were looking for in the first place, nothing is stopping them from putting the term in themselves and hitting enter. No file locker or torrent business is entitled to traffic on a silver platter. If people want to find them, they can still do so, and through Google no less. But if Google doesn’t want it’s algorithm to suggest (again, not provide – SUGGEST) typically infringing content, I don’t see the problem. I’ll care when they start censoring the actual content/searches.

Anonymous Coward says:

Side business for google?

What if google took a note from the patent trolls and set up a shell of a shell of a shell that strictly relied on their search algorithm… If people really cared, they would move to that search engine, (which would at minimum be as good as its existing engine) and if the shell company was sued, google could jump in to the fray citing how similar this other company is and how the likes of them need to stick together…

Huph (user link) says:

Eliminate Pirate Bay?

A little off-topic but: Why does anyone think removing The Pirate Bay from search results would curb downloads from the site? TPB has its own self-contained search engine! (Although, maybe it’s powered by Google?)

I suppose it’s a little more convenient to type “Pavement Slanted Enchanted pirate bay” and possibly be taken directly to the correct torrent link, but I don’t think removing TPB from search results would affect its traffic at all. People who know torrent clients aren’t *that* easy to fool.

You know, rather than focusing on sites with infringing content that will *never* go away, could Google just stop giving listings to all those damn mp3 ringtone sites?! *THOSE* are a problem to me as a musician, since they claim to have ringtones of my band’s music, but in reality it’s just a circle of deeplinks that lead to whatever shitty ringtones they really sell. I find that incredibly frustrating, since someone is using our name to generate clicks and sell ad space for money and we get nothing for it. Some of the sites are malicious, too, which is another concern: I hate the idea that someone’s computer might crash just because they wanted to hear our music. It seems odd to let this type of spam proliferate, yet censor words that describe sites that give you links that point to other links that point to content you want, and that you’ll need an entirely separate piece of software to download.

At least a pirate site actually has an unwitting hand in helping us distribute OUR music. They can keep the pennies they make from ads on our links since they perform a service, and besides, I don’t feel like paying an accountant. Hell, I’d be happy if they made a ton of money from our music. Someone should. (It’s all CC-BY-SA, so go for it!)

PW (profile) says:

Spanish case against Google

One could go further to say that all this meddling makes Google’s position that they should not be held liable for results that might infringe on copyright, very weak. Between their efforts enabling YouTube to detect copyrighted works and this latest foray into censoring auto-complete on searches, gov’ts will begin to point to the fact that they have the capabilities necessary to perform the policing being asked of them. As we know, these solutions, in particular the auto-complete capability, are weak solutions that make for an inferior user experience, but to the uninitiated (gov’ts) they will simply believe these solutions work. I’m afraid that Google compromising to enable these capabilities will open up a pandora’s box of requests for modifications to suit every jurisdiction.

It’s a shame really, because they’re one of the few companies with pockets deep enough to fight these battles, but are choosing to cave. In the case of the Spanish lawsuit, it feels like they’re posturing and it won’t be long before they compromise like they did in the U.S. Their track record will make not support the fact that the request is too difficult for them to do.

Darryl says:

Don't Sing it - - - B I N G IT...

Bing
Is
Not
Google

Thank goodness..

It’s easy, just DO NOT TRUST GOOGLE, no one in their right mind trusts google, if you are stupid enough to search for illegal things using Google, you deserve to be caught, and shot.

you know these search terms, if they are ‘sensitive’ will also be flagged, try it and see, start searching for child porn, bomb making, terrorism, anarchist’s cookbook, if you keep going, you WILL be flagged, and Google has a nice AUTOMATED SYSTEM for ‘incident’ reporting.

Basically, you are an idiot if you use Google, it has NEVER EVER been what I would consider a GOOD search engine, sure it is a BIG search engine, but that is it, big and good are two different things.

Googles search results have ALWAYS been substandard, they just know how to promote themselves beter.

As for quality, the quality is not related to their size, in fact their size limits its quality.

As they need to satisfy the masses, and cannot be specific enough.. lots of results yes, few IF any of any worth or value.

If you dont belive me, try some other search engines, and see for yourself.

Google, is a spent force, a one trick pony, its trying hard to play with the big boys, in different area’s (like software development) but they lack the experience in that area as well.

So for google, all they can do is try to keep where they are, and not lose too much ground.

Most people I know do not go anywhere NEAR GOOGLE,,

or Goolag as some like to call it..

Darryl says:

Re: Re: Don't Sing it - - - B I N G IT...

whats in a name, are you honestly trying to say a ‘decision engine’ is not the same thing and Googles algorithms.

What is googles ?? an INdecision machine ?

get over yourself ๐Ÿ™‚

your ‘idea’ that google is better because it calls its ‘algorithms’ something differnt to someone else HAHAHA..

Yea,, that makes ALL the difference !!!!.. you’ve convinced me ๐Ÿ™‚

Darryl says:

Do you use google to find TPB ? really ??

who here uses a search engine to find web site ?

if you want to go to TPB you freaking just go there, if you want to find out something, some information you search for it on a search engine..

But who here, uses a search engine to find web pages that you allready know about ??? and if so WHY????

You guys might need to go back to internet school, if you see this as a problem !! ๐Ÿ™‚

Andrew (profile) says:

Porn!

While, like most people here, I’m not convinced blocking these autocomplete terms is a good idea, Google has been doing exactly this for a while now with porn-related / explicit searches.

‘Boob’, which seems pretty mild to me, is blocked in autocomplete. Half of the 1st page of results are not explicit sites (paralleling BitTorrent’s “legitimate uses”), including news stories, a Wikipedia page, a Dreamcast site and Boobdesign (clothes for maternity and breastfeeding).

Should Google also suggest ‘tittyfuck’ when you start typing in ‘titanic’? (And it probably would, as I bet far more people look for the former than the latter.)

(Just for the record, I don’t have a good answer here; just posing a question.)

Jay says:

Wait...

Has anyone thought about this?

This is competition to Google’s own Google TV network they want to set up.

Let’s remember what they did for China to appease them. It was a fake website with the uncensored Google underneath.

What is going to appease the music and movie business? If you are looking for a torrent, you’ll complete it. But at the base level, you can still find torrents if need be. So it’s still there, and Google can say “they’re trying”.

Let’s face it, Google just pulled another “China”.

Bin4ry.Ninj4 (profile) says:

How this doesn't even matter....

Blocking a few specific words in order to stop hundreds of millions of people from downloading infringing materials is like letting the air out of your tires every morning to stop car jacker’s. Eventually they’ll just bring an air pump or a tow truck. Google isn’t stopping a thing and they know it.

Ben says:

Hey Darryl, you might wanna get your keyboard fixed. It keeps writing random words in all caps and is making you look like kind of a nut job.

Also

All sorts of terrible and nasty things happening in this world, and Mike and TD can only talk about google autocomplete !!!!… what a joke !!!..

The name should have been a give away man. It’s techdirt. A blog about tech issues.

mike s says:

Google is terrible for providing search results of child porn, or borderline sites. I googled bambi recently looking for a adult dancer, but all kinds of these child modeling site results came up. Disgusted, I wrote down those urls and mailed a letter to Google and asacp. Months later I googled the same terms and the same kind of crap was still there. You can’t tell me they can’t do anything about it… they just don’t want too. Authorities should shut Google down.

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