We all have our favorite search engine, but what if the results you get from it are actually from a rival site?
It sounds bizarre, but it happened in China. This week Sogou, a search provider whose name means “search dog”, was ordered by a Beijing court to pay a US$72,000 fine for failing to stop redirecting searches on Baidu to its own website.
So how did that work? Turns out, it has to do with Sogou’s keyboard app (called, you guessed it, Sogou Keyboard). The app lets users type Chinese characters by spelling them out by their sound, using the Latin alphabet — a widely-used system known as pinyin.
Baidu claimed that when you type in Baidu’s search box using Sogou Keyboard, a drop-down menu appears, showing related keywords. Clicking any of them brings you to Sogou’s search results page instead of Baidu’s — despite the fact that you’re trying to search on Baidu.
It’s not a new thing either. The case goes back to 2014, and Sogou lost their appeal in May this year. The court ruled that people should have the right to use any search engine that they choose, and Sogou should provide services honestly.
A month after the ruling, Baidu complained that Sogou still wasn’t doing enough to correct the problem. The court ruled this week that Sogou had failed to comply with the order.
Third-party keyboards are becoming more common. Some claim to be faster or more accurate than the default keyboard, or provide different functions — like Google’s Gboard, which supports instant translation or lets you summon emoji by drawing them.
The downside is that it gives other companies access to your keystroke data, which could contain sensitive information like credit card numbers or addresses.
Why is it necessary at all? Companies say they need to send that typing data back to their servers to enable advanced functions (like predictive text, searches or translation) to work.
But even when companies act in good faith, unintended consequences can cause problems. In 2016, some users of SwiftKey said they saw strangers’ email addresses and search terms showing up on the keyboard’s predictive text field. SwiftKey later said it fixed the bug.
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