Researchers: Search engine censorship has impact

Indiana University researchers have created a Web site that highlights differences in query results provided by country-specific search engines, such as the version of Google built to accommodate China's free-speech restrictions.

The idea behind CenSEARCHip is to determine the impact countries' censorship laws have on search results. The project was largely inspired by the google.cn system that Google decided to create earlier this year for China (Yahoo and MSN have followed suit).

"We wanted to explore the results returned by major search engines and in so doing to foster an informed debate on the impact of search censorship on information access throughout the world," said Filippo Menczer, associate professor of informatics and computer science at Indiana University, in a statement. He spearheaded the project, along with Mark Meiss, a computer science doctoral student.

The CenSEARCHip site shows side-by-side query results from the different countries' search engine versions. It uses "tag clouds" to highlight terms used more or less often by the different search engines.

Indeed, the search engines do produce significantly different results on searches about political topics, such as human rights and democracy, Meiss says. A search on Tiananmen Square, for example, results in many text references and images of the Chinese government crackdown on protesters in 1989 on the U.S. search site, but mainly hotel and tourist information on the Chinese version.

Limited access to information is not exclusive to the Chinese versions of the search engines though, the researchers said. French and German sites, for instance, commonly block neo-Nazi hate sites.

Separately, Google will likely have to turn over search-engine usage records to the Department of Justice following a hearing Tuesday in which the judge indicated he will probably order the company to comply with a government subpoena, according to published reports.

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