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Are We Facing a War on Search Engines?

Search engines are foundational to how we use the internet. They have come to occupy a role that is part indispensable tool and part repository of knowledge—so much so that some countries are pushing to view them more as public utilities than simply private tech companies.

But for all their importance, search engines aren’t invulnerable. They remain open to both political and technological attacks, as two news items from the past week make all too clear.

Google’s Troubles in China

chineseflagChina’s government is known for heavy-handed censorship efforts that haven’t always been successful in the digital world. Unlike its much more isolationist neighbor and ally, North Korea, China doesn’t prevent citizens from getting online en masse. The People’s Republic prefers to allow access and talk about free speech while nonetheless limiting which websites are available and tracking people’s browsing habits for political purposes. It’s an uncomfortable mix.

Nonetheless, it’s an approach that until recently allowed the majority of Chinese citizens access to most of the information on the internet, provided they didn’t rock the boat over it. That all changed at the tail end of December, when China apparently moved to block Google wholesale.

The blockade isn’t perfect. Some users are blocked completely, while others may get redirected to Google’s Hong Kong version—some successfully, others not. Not all users get blocked, but Google’s China-wide usage has been cut in half.

The news comes from local users and an analysis of Google’s traffic data, not from any official announcement by the Chinese government. But as a major portal to unrestricted free information, Google has apparently been singled out as a dangerous political tool. Which isn’t good for business, but probably isn’t as bad as what happened to Bing and Yahoo.

The Bing-Out

On January 2, around 2:00 in the afternoon, a curious thing happened. Millions of Bing and Yahoo users suddenly found themselves without a search engine.


The failure seemed to come from Bing’s end, as that search engine delivers results for Yahoo as well. Some users could still load the Yahoo search page, but searches didn’t actually work. Most users just got an error message on either site. Mobile and browser search bar versions failed as well.

The outage lasted for four hours.


Both Bing and Yahoo are being very close-lipped about what happened, providing essentially no explanation to millions of affected users. That has sparked wild speculation about what caused the outage.

One interesting suggestion is that this outage, too, was political in nature—in the form of a cyber attack. The attack could have come from North Korea, still angry over the controversial film The Interview, or from China given that its censorship of Google was only days earlier. Neither explanation is unlikely: North Korea has vowed revenge and China has a troubling history of cyber attacks on the US.

But there are many other possibilities. An attack could have come from a corporate rival or from a hacker group with unknown motivations. Or it could be as simple as a technical failure, although that seems hard to believe with the vast and often redundant data centers that Bing has at its disposal.

One thing is for sure: if someone took down Bing for four hours, that someone has substantial resources behind them.