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Search engines don’t exist, says EU


Search engines don’t exist, says EU

With just over two months to go until Brits head to the polling stations to vote on the UK’s membership of the European Union, people sitting on either side of the debate have been given further fat to chew with a recent EU revelation – that Google, Bing, Yahoo and DuckDuckGo are all not search engines.

In fact, according to the Directive on Network and Information Security, which is expected to come into force in EU countries in the next few months, there is nothing on the web at the moment that fits the description of what a ‘search engine’ actually is.

Searching for answers

This story was first reported on digital human rights website EDRi on April 1st, and the reporter even felt it necessary to clarify that it was not an April Fool joke.

The aforementioned Directive seeks to establish a set of rules on cyber security that can be adopted across the EU. It covers everything from social media, to internet banking, to search engines. Being a pretty hefty document, it also has to define what each of these things are, and its definition of a ‘search engine’ has raised an eyebrow or two in the digital world.

To find the part of interest to us, we need to head to page 28 and look at Article 3, point 11g, which reads:

“‘Online search engine’ is a digital service that allows users to perform searches of in principle all websites in a particular language, on the basis of a query on any subject in the form of a keyword, phrase or other input; and returns links in which information related to the requested content can be found.”

Well, this is what Google does, isn’t it? You type your query in and it gives you every site that mentions it in order of how relevant and useful it thinks they are, so how can Google possibly not be a search engine?

All or nothing

The operative phrase in Article 3, point 11g is the term “all websites”. Google does not index every website, and neither does any other site. In fact, they don’t even come close.

Imagine you received an email and you can’t remember where you filed it, but you can remember some of the text in it. Will it do any good to Google the text? When you do that, are you going to see a link to your own inbox and the exact message you’re looking for? Of course not, because it’s password protected, but your inbox is still a ‘website’. What about the membership-only forums people post on, the Facebook and Twitter accounts set to private and the subscription based sites you need to pay to visit? What about the content removed from listings under the Right to be Forgotten ruling, with which Google complies? What about the ‘dark web’?

Very little of the internet is actually readily accessible. The ‘dark web’ is a sizeable section of the internet that can only be accessed using specialist software like Tor, and is in turn only a tiny portion of the so called ‘deep web’. This hidden section of the internet is estimated to be as many as 550 times bigger than the ‘surface web’ indexed by Google and other search engines, although due to the rate at which it is expanding, the true rate cannot be confirmed. Suffice to say that Google is some way off allowing users to search “all websites”.

So, is the Directive just poorly worded, or can Google, Bing and co. simply ignore any of the guidelines in it that apply to “search engines” and argue that, under EU definitions, that’s not what they are? Either way, I strongly suspect we haven’t heard the last of the rumblings from this piece of legislation.

John Murray
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