CenSEARCHip: Visually Comparing the Effects of Online Censorship

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A paper published this July’s issue of “First Monday,” a journal exploring Internet issues put out by the University of Illinois at Chicago, details an interesting project called CenSEARCHip. Created by Mark Meiss and Filippo Menczer of the University of Indiana, CenSEARCHip is a search engine that creates visualizations of results for the same search terms as seen by citizens in different countries. For example, one could compare Google results from China with those from the United States.

The idea is to make it easier to visualize the effects of censorship policies on search engines and knowledge discovery online. “Hundreds of millions of users around the world must contend with state censorship of Internet content,” writes the pair. “This censorship may occur by executive order or democratic legislation. In either case, users face a problem beyond simply being denied access to information. They cannot be sure when censorship is taking place and how it affects what they see.”

CenSEARCHip compares the top 10 or so results from Yahoo! or Google in two countries and creates a tag cloud based on those results. The tag clouds are displayed side by side, which the authors say allow users to give “attention to the features of greatest difference” between the two sets of results, and “judge for themselves whether those differences are important.” The same thing can be done for image search (as above).

Meiss and Menczer concede that differences in results aren’t necessarily indicative of censorship — they could just be “due to geographic location and culture,” or other factors. However, using CenSEARCHip to compare differences in culture is also interesting, so their project has value as a comparative tool regardless of what the cause of discrepancies between search results.

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