Friday, 28 January 2011

Google censors peer-to-peer search terms

Google's famous "don't be evil" commitment, made in the firm's infancy, has elicited two kinds of response over the years. Fans of corporate responsibility hail the commitment, while more cynical tech-watchers suggested that it was only a matter of time before the need to compete forced Google to make some unsavoury decisions.

The latter group can now notch up another point in their favour. TorrentFreak, a tech blog, revealed today that Google has begun censoring search terms relating to torrent files, a file-sharing system. Terms such as "uTorrent", the name of a piece of torrent software, now no longer appear in the instant results that appear as you type terms into Google's search box.

The censorship is not complete: results for torrent-related terms do appear when you do a full Google search. They're just missing from the instant results. This is in line with changes announced by Google in early December.

Why is this evil? Many people will say it isn't. The internet is awash with torrents for pirated movies, music and software. The recording industry, for one, has long argued that Google and others should do more to restrict access to this content.

The problem is that Google is taking a clumsy approach. Many file-sharing sites are omitted from the list of censored terms. More importantly, uTorrent and some of the other terms refer to perfectly legal pieces of software, or the also legal companies behind the software. The software might be used for illegal purposes, but it also has legitimate applications, such as allowing new bands to release music for free.

So why did Google throw out an anti-piracy net that catches the good with the bad? The company isn't commenting on the changes, but many observers suspect that pressure from copyright holders, notably the music industry, has forced Google to implement a less than perfect fix.

On a final note, it looks like Google has either tweaked its censorship, or hasn't yet rolled out all the changes to all users. My searches, made around 10:30am Pacific time today, produced instant results for "uTorrent" and other terms that TorrentFreak says have disappeared. Some terms, like "Rapidshare", a file-sharing website, did appear to be censored.

Jim Giles posts at
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