Why Search Engines Work Like They Work

Posted by: Rea Maor In: Search Engines - Saturday, November 10th, 2007

A while back, the post “More Evil Things to Type into Google”, which is the current most popular post on my site, got a comment from one “Silex” responding to my assurance that there is nothing illegal about typing in a search string. Silex says:

“I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but accessing information through the form of what you type into a search bar can be illegal under current computer law. It is illegal to access anything you’re not intended to access. They do not have to make it secure, and it doesn’t matter if you do nothing with this data. Look more into DMCA.”

And this post will be all about why that notion is wrong. In the first place, the Digital Millenium Copyright Act is a United States law. Now, I know that this will come as a shock, but in fact there is land mass on planet Earth that is not under United States jurisdiction. Israel, for instance. Hello (waving from across the ocean)!

Now, beyond that, it is absolutely impossible to post something on the public World Wide Web with no access restrictions and at the same time say that it is illegal for anybody to look at it. Password-protect it and I break it? That’s different. But I didn’t break into anything to post what I posted; I only went as far as I was allowed.

In the first place, Google has already been there – obviously, otherwise the links wouldn’t pop up in search results! Google’s bot surfs the web for us, gathering pages which it keeps in cache. Other search engines work that way, too. So any web document that I can find with a search engine has been crawled with dozens of bots already. And I think just maybe if Google was violating the DMCA, its American offices would have been notified of that.

In the second place, the DMCA criminalizes the act of circumventing an access control. The whole point of these security-surfing posts is to show that people are leaving their private data out in the open with NO access control! So even if I do this from a laptop while sitting on the steps of the White House in Washington DC, I am no more violating United States law than anywhere else.

Speaking of caches, web browsers keep one. So, before you even get to see a web page, a copy of it has already been stored on your computer. Now, no matter what country you are in, possession counts for a mighty hefty sum of the law. It being your computer which you bought with your money, you have a perfect right to read what is stored on your own computer. What if a typo in the search query box gets you somewhere accidentally?

Furthermore, I do it to advise people to use these tricks to look for problems on their own site. This is perfectly in line with the concept of full disclosure. Not necessarily a matter of law, but observed world-wide as a generally smart policy.

Now, as a disclaimer, I’m not a legal professional or a law enforcement officer in any capacity. There might be some countries on Earth where such activity is considered illegal, by some twisted definition. So of course, readers should check with the local law in their area. But all I said was, “By the way, there is nothing illegal about typing in a search string.” and to the best of my knowledge, if it’s legal to own an Internet-connected computer and access a web search engine, then that claim should be true. If anybody out there knows of a law against such an act in their country, please DO post a link to the place where this law is written. I’d be only too happy to cover that story!

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