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What are the Different Types of Illegal Search Engines?

Tara Barnett
Tara Barnett

When people discuss illegal search engines, what they typically mean are search engines that are designed or primarily used for accessing illegal materials. A search engine provides directions to a site, but it does not itself hold any of the site's materials, so it is usually not perpetrating a crime. In some cases, a search engine might be considered illegal in a specific country because that country does not want its population to have access to the information the site provides, even though that information is not necessarily criminal. Which search engines are illegal always depends on where someone is conducting the search, but in many cases, one that is illegal will be blocked in an area where people are not allowed to use it.

No matter the name different search engines use, there are really only two types of illegal search engines: those that provide access to illegal materials and those that are themselves illegal. Sometimes, a search engine might fall into both categories. There is no such thing as one that is universally illegal, and most can still be accessed even if they are blocked. Doing so, however, does itself often constitute a crime.

Illegal search engines may provide access to illegal materials.
Illegal search engines may provide access to illegal materials.

Some of these search engines are used as ways of accessing media for which a person might otherwise be expected to pay. For instance, copyrighted materials are often found on illegal search engines for free. The precise way in which these search engines operate varies, and the specific mechanism by which the materials are accessed have nothing to do with why these search engines are illegal. What is important, from the perspective of the law, is whether or not the person distributing the items has the right to do so, and whether or not the distribution violates copyright laws.

Search engines can also be considered illegal if they somehow threaten the government of a country, or the government dislikes them. Sometimes, a government may wish to censor materials and may not be able to reach an agreement with the company about which websites it will list. In these cases, the site may not even provide access to specifically illegal materials. The materials might show government officials in a bad light, or may offend certain powerful parties, but the words or images themselves might still be legal. Visiting illegal search engines is often a serious crime when the search engine itself, and not the materials to which it provides access, is deemed illegal.

Discussion Comments


The only reason is control, because that's what the government is best at.

And who cares if people see the government in a bad light? They should pay for their crimes like everyone else. If I murdered someone, why should I be put on the front page, as opposed to them doing it and sweeping it under the rug? Maybe then the world would see just how corrupt and controlling the government really is. You know how they really are!


I seem to remember in the early 2000s hearing about search engines that directed people to websites telling them how to engage in a lot of illegal activities like making explosives, counterfeiting money, and cooking drugs. They really came to light after the Columbine shooting.

I think the government was quick to shut down as many as it could when it found out they existed.

I always wondered how people found them in the first place. They definitely don't show up in the normal search engines. I think a lot of them spread by word of mouth, but someone has to learn about them originally.


@starrynight - A lot of the problem with shutting down search engines that mostly lead to copyrighted material is that illegally downloading material is not the sole purpose of the website. The search engine can still access legal material, and it is up to the user to distinguish between things that are legal and illegal.

Another problem is that a lot of the websites with illegal content are located outside of the United States. The most popular torrent search engine is located in Sweden, I believe. It gets temporarily shut down every now and then but is back up in a few days. There is just no legal way to keep it from letting people search content.


@Mammmood - You brought up a good point about content aggregation. I think sites that point to other search engines or listings are most likely to give you access to illegal content.

One such example is the Dogpile search engine. I’ve got nothing against Dogpile; I think it’s a great idea, but it basically combines all search engines into one.

So I think you’ve got a better chance of finding illegal search listings in your search results.


I think that search engine listings for legitimate search engines are regularly pruned to make sure that they don’t encourage copyright violations. That’s a matter of practice, I believe, but still I think a lot of illegal sites get listed in the search results.

It’s impossible to filter through the millions of web pages to ensure that every one of them is a legal site. What I find particularly insidious are those sites that contain lists of movies you can watch online.

These are search engines in a sense, although all of the content seems to have been aggregated on one site. However, all the links are just pointers to other sites that show the movies – and interestingly enough, those sites are in China.

This is how the website operators get around the legal wrangling. They claim that they don’t own the site’s content; they’re just pointing to some other place.


I know there are search engines that actually specifically target illegal mp3 files. Unlike a search engine embedded into a torrenting website (which might have some legal files too) this kind of search engine specifically searches illegal material.

I read a little article about a particular search engine that does this. I can't believe the search engine is still active! I mean, pirating music is illegal. Obviously people know about this search engine. So they need to shut it down!


@Monika - Censoring the search results seems like it would be against the whole idea of a search engine. I guess if this company really wanted to enter the Chinese market I can see why they did that. I don't know if I agree with it though.

It seems interesting to me that a search engine itself could be illegal. When I hear the term "illegal search engine" it makes me think about a search engine that's used on a torrenting website. The search engine is mainly searching through illegal content, so it seems like the search engine would be illegal too.


When I think of search engines becoming illegal because of government censorship, the first place I think of is China! I know that a lot of the more popular United States websites are illegal there.

In fact, I remember a few years ago one popular search engine entered into an agreement with China to keep their search engine legal there. They censored the search engine results in accordance with Chinese law! I don't think this agreement lasted more than a year or so, but I could be wrong.

Anyway, that's a good example of a search engine that is legal in the United States, but was illegal elsewhere until it complied with government regulations.

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    • Illegal search engines may provide access to illegal materials.
      By: DragonImages
      Illegal search engines may provide access to illegal materials.