Users of privacy-focused search engine DuckDuckGo have been unable to site search the domains of some well-known pirated media sites recently, as reported by TorrentFreak on Friday. DuckDuckGo CEO Gabriel Weinberg called it “completely made up,” tweeting over the weekend that this is the result of a site operator error. Weinberg insisted the company is not purging any results. “Anyone can verify this by searching for an outlet and see it come up in results,” Weinberg tweeted.

To observers, it seemed as if DuckDuckGo had de-indexed searches for copyright-flouting media download sites like The Pirate Bay and Fmovies, and even a site search for the open-source tool youtube-dl came up empty. TorrentFreak later updated its report citing a company spokesperson blaming the issue on Bing search data, which DuckDuckGo relies upon.

We reached out to DuckDuckGo about the issue and received this response from senior communications manager Allison Goodman:

After looking into this, our records indicate that YouTube-dl and The Pirate Bay were never removed from our search results when you searched for them directly by name or URL, which the vast majority of people do (it’s rare for people to use site operators or query operators in general).

The Verge was told the new behavior is not targeted to piracy-linked sites. “We are having issues with our site: operator, and not just for these sites,” wrote Goodman. “Some of the other sites routinely change domain names and have spotty availability, and so naturally come in and out of the index but should be available as of now.” The Verge was able to observe these changes: a Friday search for “ spider-man” gave zero results (including the absence of the main site), but today, the search does at least yield the website — but not anything within.

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The Pirate Bay was completely suppressed this weekend, but now DuckDuckGo at least shows the domain as a result.
Screenshot: Jay Peters and Umar Shakir

Like Goodman, Weinberg claimed site operators are sparingly used and downplayed it as an issue:

Similarly, we are not “purging” YouTube-dl or The Pirate Bay and they both have actually been continuously available in our results if you search for them by name (which most people do). Our site: operator (which hardly anyone uses) is having issues which we are looking into.

No matter what’s causing the change, this is the second recent dust-up for DuckDuckGo over its search results. In March, the company responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by saying it would down-rank sites spreading Russian misinformation. Right-wing figures who had promoted it as an alternative to Google claimed it had abandoned principles of free speech for censorship, while DDG spokesperson Kamyl Bazbaz told Recode, “This isn’t censorship. It’s just search rankings.”

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