When I was in London, my hotel had free wi-fi so obviously I was using that to connect to the Internet. While I understood I was in a different country, I wasn’t expecting my online experience to be too much different than compared to at home. I was in for a bit of a surprise.
One evening I was in my hotel room when I used Google to search for something. I forget exactly what term or word I was searching for but I do remember the results that came up seemed weird to me. There were far fewer results that should have been returned and it seemed really out-of-place. It was as if Google search was broken or even censored.
To test this to the extreme, I tried Google search again but using the name of a porn star. I know for a fact that searching that name should return pages and pages of sweet, delicious results. In London though, that name returned exactly zero results. It was as if that nice, young lady didn’t even exist. I’d never experienced this type of Internet censorship before.
At this point, I was really puzzled and wasn’t sure what possible rule, law, or restriction was causing this. I noticed that by default searches were being handled by Google UK. A long time ago, there was only one Google that everyone used to search but now Google is commonly localized to a particular region or country. Of course, back at home, I’m used to my searches being processed to Google Canada. So I explicitly entered in “google.ca” into my browser and then searched again with the name of exotic entertainer. Even though I supposedly used Google Canada, which should have returned results, I again got none. Odd.
I then starting searching to see what kind of Internet censorship was active in the UK. I remembered that they wanted to block all porn in the UK but I wasn’t certain how far that had gotten. After a bit of digging I discovered that Google prevents you from turning off the “SafeSearch” feature in the UK. This is the thing that prevents search results that have explicit content from showing up. So that might have explained what I was seeing.
To test this theory, I then tried going to Bing and searching the same thing. This was probably the second time in my entire life I purposely used Bing but I needed to know. Bing returned hundreds of results, way more in line with what I had expected. Indeed, Bing is actually well-known for being a great search engine for porn related materials. This did tell me though that the lack of search results was a Google thing.
I’ve been using the Internet now since 1995 or so and this is the first time that such censorship was so overtly in my face. I’m sure I’ve been shielded from results before but in a less noticeable way. I get that porn is an adult subject matter but I was signed into my Google account when I searched and Google knows I’m an adult. It’s a bit disappointing to know that someone out there decided on my behalf what I shouldn’t have seen on the Internet. For millions of people out there, this is a daily reality. For example, the Chinese government controls what sites their citizens can and cannot see. Now that I’ve experienced this, I can say that totally sucks balls.
This also reminds me that there is an element of danger when we rely on a single source or piece of technology for something critical. Imagine that night there was only one search engine and that was Google. Without Bing, there would have been no alternative and as far as I would know, that young lady I searched for didn’t even exist. When you control the flow of information, in a way, you control reality. That’s a lot of power in someone’s hands. I’m glad I live in a country that doesn’t call for such restrictions.