Free software activists have released a peer-to-peer search engine to take on Google, Yahoo, Bing and others.
The free, distributed search engine, YaCy, takes a new approach to search. Rather than using a central server, its search results come from a network of independent "peers," users who have downloaded the YaCy software. The aim is that no single entity gets to decide what gets listed, or in which order results appear.
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"Most of what we do on the Internet involves search. It's the vital link between us and the information we're looking for. For such an essential function, we cannot rely on a few large companies and compromise our privacy in the process," said Michael Christen, YaCy's project leader.
The project is supported by the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE), which is concerned that dominant search engines have too much control and power over what information Internet users can find online. "That company will also know what you're currently interested in. The search terms used tell others a lot about what you're up to. Targeted advertising is only the most benign use of this data," explained Karsten Gerloff, FSFE president.
"We are moving away from the idea that services need to be centrally controlled. Instead, we are realizing how important it is to be independent, and to create infrastructure that doesn't have a single point of failure," added Gerloff.
The YaCy network currently has around 600 'peers', but project organizers expect this to grow along the lines of other free software projects that aim to replace centrally-run services. For example, identi.ca (status.net) offers a free software alternative to Twitter; diaspora (joindiaspora.com) and many others provide a free, distributed alternative to Facebook.
As is often the case in the early stages of a new technology, results are better on some topics than on others -- mainly computer-related issues.
The YaCy peers create individual search indexes and rankings, so that results better match what users are looking for over time. Each instance of the software contains a peer-to-peer network protocol to exchange search indexes with other YaCy search engines.
Everyone can try out the search engine. Users can become part of YaCy's network by installing the software on their own computers. YaCy is free software, so anyone can use, study, share and improve it. It is currently available for GNU/Linux, Windows and MacOS. The project is also looking for developers and other contributors.