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.