When is a search engine not a search engine? When it’s Google, says the EU

notogoogle

The European Union’s Network and Information Security (NIS) Directive is a piece of legislation, due to be adopted this spring, which lays out the first set of EU-wide cyber security rules.

The final text was agreed on in December 2015, setting out a range of strategies for tackling and preventing cyber attacks and disruptions. Its proposals have been met with a lukewarm reception from the industries it covers, which include everything from digital technologies to social networks, financial institutions and ecommerce sites.

Now, it seems like search engines might have the biggest bone to pick with the EU’s Directive – because according to the legislation, they aren’t search engines at all.

The NIS Directive has settled on a definitive definition for an ‘online search engine’, what it is and what it does. According to the Directive:

“‘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.”

I’ve bolded the key part of that quotation – “in principle all websites”. Because Google, although it indexes the vast majority of websites on the internet, draws a number of lines about what it will include in search results. It doesn’t index Tor websites, and complies with ‘robots.txt’ requests from website owners who don’t want Google to index their pages.

Google also complies with the EU’s own Right to Be Forgotten ruling, which allows users to request that outdated or irrelevant content be removed from Google’s listings. Other types of web pages that Google de-indexes include copyright infringing content, revenge porn and ‘mugshot extortion’ websites.

An image of a computer delete key.Google de-lists a range of websites from its search results, including those removed under the EU’s Right to Be Forgotten ruling. (Image by Ervins Strauhmanis via Flickr, some rights reserved)

So Google doesn’t, in fact, index all websites in principle. But does any search engine? So far, no – and that’s the biggest irony of the EU’s new ‘search engine definition’; there is no such engine that actually complies with it. Bing, Yahoo, DuckDuckGo – all of these have policies which mean that they don’t in principle index all websites.

Does the new definition actually mean anything for the search engine industry? I highly doubt it. The current players in the search engine market have spent years refining their methods, and aren’t going to suddenly change tack because of an already fairly unpopular EU directive.

At most I suppose the legislation might affect Google and cohort’s ability to legally use the term ‘search engine’ within the EU to describe their business, but any challenge to such a well-established term is likely to provoke a huge backlash.

If, of course, a search engine enters the arena and decides that it wants to be the first and only search engine to index any and all websites, best of luck to it. It will definitely be an interesting venture. But it probably won’t have anything to do with the EU.

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