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The butterfly as protector (or petty censor?)
By Scott Bradner
I saw it first on Slashdot. A Czech website was reporting that the MSN search function was blocking searches for the string "xfree86." If true that would be stunningly petty. Well, it was true, but it looks like that is not all that the butterfly's search engine is up to.
I went to the search engine to try for myself. (http://search/msn/com) Sure enough when I searched for "xfree86" I got back a message that said "You have entered a search term that is likely to return adult content." Searches for xfree*, where * was everything from 80 to 89 other than 86 produced reasonable results but *=86 gave me that same message.
Just what is XFree86 and why would the overly protective butterfly be blocking access? (By the way I find the MSN butterfly ads stupefying silly, I'd write about that but my thesaurus does not have enough synonyms for the word "silly" to do the topic justice.) According to the XFree86 Project, Inc. home page (www.xfree86.org), XFree86 is "a freely redistributable open-source implementation of the X Window System that runs on UNIX(R) and UNIX-like (like Linux, the BSDs and Solaris x86 series) operating systems and OS/2." That does not seem all that likely to threaten Microsoft's future, even if traditionally "the XFree86 Project has focused on the Intel x86-based platforms." So I guess it was an excess of petty zeal that caused someone at MSN to tweak things in this way. (Well, maybe saying that XFree86 was for adults was a subtle way to say who Windows is good for.)
When it came time to write this column I found out that it had not taken long for the Slashdot story to get the tweak removed. Searches for xfree86 now return almost 230,000 responses with the XFree86 Project home page as the top response. I decided to do some search engine comparative shopping. I tried a few searches on MSN search, Google and Yahoo. (I also tried Ask Jeeves but they do not report how many hits they get.)
A few searches and their hit counts: (MSN=M, Google=G, Yahoo=Y)
"xfree86" - M: 229,250; G: 2,350,000; Y: 1,270,000
"microsoft" - M: 21,456,004; G: 70,000,000; Y: 104,000,000
"macintosh" - M: 4,142,464; G: 12,300,000; Y: 21,500,000
"scott bradner" - M: 5,827; G: 23,000; Y: 40,600
"bill gates" - M: 60 or 802,509, G: 2,650,000; Y: 3,750,000
The "60" is not a typo. The first few times I searched for "bill gates" I got 60 hits. Later the same search returned over 800,000. I went to a different computer and got 60 again. Looks like the butterfly is being a bit tricky.
Based on these few tests I'm not going to recommend what search site you should use (I doubt there is much difference in practice if you get 12 or 21 million hits, few people will page that far anyway.) But you may be able to guess what will not be my default search site.
The past week or so the comic strip Fox Trot (http://www.ucomics.com/foxtrot) has been running a series of strips where they imagine what anti Apple, anti Netscape, anti-world, etc special code might be in the leaked Windows source code. A corporate environment that could lead to the petty blocking of searches for a potentially competitive product might just make the comic strip not so funny.
disclaimer: Based on a search for "humor" on Harvard's home page, Harvard must be a funny place. Not everyone would agree but the above attempt at educational humor is my own.