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Instant Censorship, Google Style

September 9, 2010

Google just launched a new search technology that speeds up the already mindbogglingly fast process by which you can find information online. I read about it in the New York Times this morning. It launched yesterday and it’s called Google Instant. It works like this: as you type your search string Google begins finding results and displaying them before you hit “search.” The list changes as you continue typing. If you begin to type “censorship” for example, by the time you type “CEN” you get search results for Central Park. Type the “S” and you get results for Census. Type the “O” and you get censorship-related results. This all happens at the speed of typing. Fascinating. I was wondering whether I thought this was distracting or helpful when I read something that really pissed me off:

Some words, like “nude,” produce no results because Google Instant filters for violence, hate and pornography, the company said.

I don’t think that automatic filtering for “violence, hate or pornography” makes sense in the first place – users should be able to control their own filtering – but I certainly don’t think that “nude” should be filtered because of a possible connection to pornography. I wondered what this looked like in practice, and I also wondered what else was filtered.

I went to my computer to try it out. I started typing.

N (Netflix) NU (Nurse Jackie) NUD (…nothing at all!)



I tried SEX and came up with tons of results for Sex and the City. Sexuality also produces a string of results. NAKED, however, does not. BREAST works but PENIS does not. MASTURBATION is unsearchable using Google Instant. Results peter out by the time you get to the U and it decides you are looking for something too naughty for Google to provide.* Type in FUC and it predicts you are searching for FUCK and all instant results disappear, but get as far as FUCH and it finds lots of stuff.

So, what words are blocked that are related to violence or hate? None of the first batch I thought of were filtered. I tried KILL, MURDER, GUN, KKK and found that Google Instant predicted search results for all of those.  GUN turns up online gun auctions. Nothing to do with violence.

So here’s a challenge to SITPS readers:

Help me find the other words that Google Instant filters out because of a connection to hate or violence. I am predicting the list will be very short. So far I’ve only found one word. 

NIG produces results about night and Nigeria, but add a G and the results disappear. It must be predicting NIGGER and filtering it on hate-related grounds. I couldn’t come up with a single other example of something related to hate or violence. (Ironically enough WHORE, FAG and DYKE each turn up plenty of results.)

To Google my challenge is different: Don’t filter nudity or sexual health results in the name of filtering pornography. Don’t filter in the first place. Your users already have the ability to control their search settings. Don’t censor them automatically. Don’t be evil.

*Of course you can type in the full word “MASTURBATION” and hit “search” and you will come up with a list of results, but Google Instant will not provide them in the predictive stream.  

Censorship art by Paul G on Flickr and used under a Creative Commons Attribution – No Derivatives – Noncommercial license.

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