Can We The People Take Back Search?
It’s no secret that the Web has been taken over by giant corporations whose sole concern is the enrichment of their shareholders. You and I and the rest of humanity are merely raw materials to be ground up and processed into “shareholder value.” Is there any alternative to a world in which three corporations control 98% of search results? Read on for the scoop on decentralized Search...
Can Decentralized Search Work?
In recent weeks, I have written about decentralized social networking (the “Fediverse”) and decentralized personal data (Tim Berners-Lee’s “Solid”). Now, along comes decentralized Search. Before delving into that, I’d like to discuss how all three topics are related.
One corporation, Google, now handles 63% of all U. S. search queries and over 93% of U. S. searches on mobile devices, according to The Statistics Portal’s July, 2018, report. Add Microsoft’s Bing and Oath (formerly Yahoo), and three corporations control 98% of U. S. search results.
Effectively, they can control what we know. They can control who we can find and what we can learn about them. They can control what we can think about and, in many ways, what we think. They can control whether you can be heard online.
Whether they exercise this awesome power is beside the point. In a free society, no trio of corporations should wield that much power. If you think otherwise, then I have no hope for you. If most of humanity is OK with this situation, then I have no hope for humanity. I am not OK with it. Something must be done to break the stranglehold that these corporations hold upon Search and all of its fruits.
A backlash against this concentration and centralization of information power is underway. The inventor of the Web is part of it. A myriad of elder and younger geeks are part of it. I am part of it. You should be part of it, too.
Our primary defense against corporate greed is FOSS – free, open-source software, owned by none and available to all. FOSS is developed by individual geeks and given to humanity free of charge, without strings of copyright terms attached. FOSS is an Act of Kindness as Aristotle defined it over 2,500 years ago: “help freely given to another in need, without any expectation of return from the one helped.” FOSS is a manifestation of Charity, the synonym for Kindness which Paul of Tarsus declared to be “the greatest” of all virtues, greater even than Faith or Hope. (I Corinthians 13:13) The greatest virtue is the best weapon against the greatest vice, greed. Nowhere are greed and its consequences more repugnant than they are in Search.
One solution is decentralized Search powered by the community of human beings who use Search. Every one of us can do what Google does, and make his or her small contribution to a search index used by all, but owned and controlled by no one. Such a crowd-sourced search engine cannot be censored; like the Internet itself, decentralized Search treats censorship as damage to its network and routes traffic around it. Decentralized Search addresses the threats posed by corporate gatekeepers such as Google.
Let's Look at Some Decentralized Search Projects
Karsten Gerloff, president of the Free Software Foundation of Europe, described those threats in a blog post published in concert with the 2011 release of YaCy (“ya-see”), an early decentralized Search project: “If a search engine is run by a single company, that company gets to decide how the results are generated and how they are ranked,” he wrote. “That company will also know what you’re currently interested in. Targeted advertising is only the most benign use of this data.”
Today, YaCy is an app that comes in versions for Windows, Mac OS, and GNU/Linux. But to my bitter disappointment, the Windows version is a total trainwreck. I didn't test the Mac or Linux version, but I presume they are similarly awful. You can try the YaCy app, but be warned it will waste your time and drive you mad.
I tried the YaCy app for Windows, and the installation process went smoothly. Next, I tried a few searches on terms that are currently popular topics. A search for "Bob Barker" took 30 seconds and yielded one result: "History of the Cherokee Indians and their legends and folk lore". I tried "Hurricane Willa," another search term that's all over the news this week. Results included "Madonna, Justin Bieber invade the Bay Area", "UN Security Council Unanimously Backs Libya's New Unity Government", and "Oliver Stone apologises for claim Hitler was a scapegoat".
Okay, so maybe YaCy isn't great at keeping up with current events. A search for "baby names" yielded these results: "CHOCTAW BABY BORN ON THE 4TH OF JULY", "Baby Boom Fotos y videos en Freeones", and "NYT: Why are Asian girls suddenly forced to dye their hair blonde? Because America has Too Many White People!"
Adding insult to injury, there were no relevant results for "Bob Rankin". So you get the picture -- YaCy returned a mix of the irrelevant and the ridiculous, lots of non-English results, too many dead pages, and took way too long to do it.
Sorry, YaCy developers, but after seven years you have not produced an app that would enable the overwhelming majority of people to use or help build a decentralized search engine. If that is your mission, then you have failed thus far. Try harder, or give up and go home.
Another disappointment is Presearch, which purports to be “an open, decentralized search engine that rewards community members with Presearch Tokens for their usage, contribution to, and promotion of the platform.” Unfortunately, it is NOT a search engine. It may be a cryptocurrency scam. At best, it is vaporware.
Presearch, today, is just an unnecessary front-end to a search engine of your choice. (The default is Google.) The Presearch home page has a search box that accepts a user’s search terms. Presearch then passes the terms and the user to the designated search engine. After entering words and pressing Enter, you will find yourself on the Google search results page for your terms. You may as well have started at google.com, so what is the point of using Presearch?
That’s where “Presearch Tokens” come in. You earn 25 tokens just by creating a Presearch account, and one-quarter of a token for each search you perform via presearch.org. These tokens are actually a cryptocurrency known by the symbol “PRE” on crypto trading exchanges.
PRE is redeemable for U. S. dollars; as I write this, one PRE can be redeemed for a bit over six cents. I have accumulated about $1.87 worth of PRE in the course of researching this article. But I cannot redeem any PRE until I have accumulated at least 1,000 PRE, or $61.75 worth of PRE.
Where does Presearch, the company, get dollars with which to redeem PRE? First, according to the company, advertisers pay dollars for modest listings on Presearch’s “Sponsors” page. Second, some people are buying bundles of PRE for dollars, again according to the company. I could buy a bunch of PRE as an investment, and so could you. The wisdom of doing so is debatable.
Presearch’s “leaderboard” page shows the names of the top PRE holders and the number of PRE tokens each holds. There is something fishy about a system that allows so many “Anonymous User” accounts. It’s also suspicious to find so many of them among the top PRE holders.
Presearch is the creation of Mr. Colin Pape, a “serial entrepreneur” whose most significant contribution to humanity seems to be ShopCity.com, a far-flung network of cookie-cutter local shopping directories. So it’s no surprise to find many sponsors with domain names like ShopLondon.ca, ShopOttawa.com, ShopBrantford.com, etc. Most other sponsors have something to do with the cryptocurrency industry.
Presearch has published a 39-page white paper explaining its vision and go-to-market strategy. If it takes 39 pages, you may have a hallucination instead of a vision… or you may be trying to put one over on me.
The cryptocurrency industry took a severe shock in March, 2018, when Google banned all ads related to crypto, including wallets, initial coin offerings, exchanges, and so on. (That ban did not filter crypto from search results; it just meant you could not buy more attention than Google’s regular search algorithm gave you.) The ad ban is being eased slightly with Google’s October Policy Update.
Facebook, Twitter, and even Snapchat also banned crypto-related ads. Facebook loosened its ban in June. Whether you think the crypto ad ban is a good or bad thing, it should make you wonder what other topics are banned, suppressed or filtered. And it should alarm you that a handful of executives in giant corporations have the power and willingness to effectively silence any sort of communication they choose.
That is the power we, the People, must take back. Decentralized Search is a means to that end. Now, if only someone will do it right. Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 23 Oct 2018
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