It's become clear in the past year or so that one key "target" in the legacy entertainment industry's game plan is to force Google to change its search results to have "good sites" rise up and "bad sites" be pushed down. They've been putting pressure
on search engines for quite some time now, and have even considered suing Google
for not giving it the results they want. Late last year, the RIAA even put out a "report card" in which it complained that Google won't let them
program Google's results for everyone else.
This whole focus is a dumb idea for a few reasons. Mostly it's dumb because it (again) misdiagnoses the problem. It assumes, for example, that the reason that people go to file sharing sites is because the results top Google. But that's rarely the case. In fact, if you do searches for various tracks or movies, you'll almost always find legitimate results at the top already. The "issue" comes up when people do those searches in combination with "free" or something along those lines. But, by that point (in most
, but not all
, cases) the industry has already lost those folks. At that point it's likely that they know
they're looking for an unauthorized version, so seeing a more "legitimate" result at the top of the results isn't likely to make much of a difference.
Even if we assume that the industry's theory that Google is magically driving total rubes to unauthorized sites when they really wanted expensive, inconvenient, DRM-laden, limited pay sites, the simple fact is that it's not as easy as they think
to "fix" the search results. In many ways this is similar (or perhaps it's just another version of the same exact thing) of the industry talking about how it's "easy" for ISPs, online service providers and everyone else to "just know" when a song or video is infringing -- but then are so confused that they sue over
videos they themselves uploaded. Knowing whether or not something is infringing is not as easy as the industry insists.
Similarly, knowing what's a "good" site and a "bad" site isn't so easy either. How would you approach it?
- You could just take a list from the RIAA & MPAA of "good sites" and "bad sites." That raises a bunch of problems. Let's just start with antitrust. Two trade associations representing the biggest record labels (who've had antitrust problems in the past) and Hollywood studios giving Google (already under antitrust scrutiny) a list of winners and losers? Er... DOJ on lines one, two and three. No way is that legal.
- Even if it was legal, not everyone agrees who is "good" and "bad." It's easy for the RIAA and the MPAA to insist that Megaupload -- for example -- is unquestionably "bad." But... then you have major label artists and super successful indie artists speaking out against the shutdown, pointing out that there were plenty of good things about the service. Why does the RIAA get to decide when some of its own artists feel otherwise?
- The RIAA and MPAA don't have a very good history of recognizing a "good" new thing when they see it. In fact, they seem to scream bloody murder (sometimes literally in the case of the VCR) when new useful tools show up. Letting them program Google's search results seems fraught with problems.
- If search engines let the RIAA and MPAA program their results to point to "good sites" and suppress "bad sites," where does it stop? For years we've seen lawsuits against Google from companies that don't like how they show up in the search results. Why don't they get to reprogram Google's results too? Or pick any random industry out of a hat. Car dealers? I'm sure when you do a search on a car they want results to point to a "good" local dealer, rather than a "bad" site that tells you how to get a better deal on a car. Imagine having to do that at scale where every industry has its own interpretation. And then what happens when those interpretations conflict?
- Okay, so if they don't just give Google a list, how does it "know" the "good" sites from the "bad" sites? Again, remember with Megaupload, we've seen plenty of artists say they like the site or its offerings which actually help them make money. Can Google just assume? How? That's not how Google works. If you have any sense of the scale under which any search engine works you know that's an impossible task. There's no way to just know -- especially since sites that are "downgraded" are likely to just set up shop somewhere new and start again. So at scale, the problem becomes even trickier.
- What if there was a "proxy"? Ok. Like what? DMCA notices? If a site gets lots of DMCA notices, it must be bad, right? Okay, so look at ChillingEffects... and you realize that the sites that get the most DMCA takedowns are sites like Google, Facebook and Twitter. It does't seem like a very good proxy, because sites that are popular get lots of takedowns. It doesn't mean they're "bad."
- An "independent" third party? Who is the third party? How do they take into account the issues above? And, again, if you're doing that for one industry, you'd have to do it for all. And that simply doesn't work at scale.
In the end, I can't actually see any way that Google can do what the industry wants. I know that someone in the comments below will link to some random site and say something to the effect of "how can Google say this site is legit?!?!" but that ignores how Google actually works. It's an algorithm. It doesn't look at sites like a human does. At scale there's simply no way that Google can have a human check each of the sites in its index.
The problem is that Google isn't designed to prop up the entertainment industry's old business model
. It's designed to provide people results for what they're searching for
. Those may be two different things. Google's algorithm does try to give users the "best" result for what they're looking for, and quite frequently that is the legitimate, authorized offering, but it's not always so easy there. iTunes sales are mostly done through iTunes' software, rather than on the web, which makes it difficult for Google to track link popularity there. Amazon music and movie sales often initiate from Amazon's own search, rather than Google -- so, again, Google has less data to work with.
Furthermore, if someone does a search for the name of a movie plus "download" when that movie isn't available for download, what is Google supposed to do, exactly? If the movie industry weren't so obsessed with release windows
, Google could point people to the authorized download. But without that, how is it supposed to do that? If there is no authorized download, it's going to try its best, and sometimes that's going to be to an unauthorized source.
In the end, for those who keep insisting that this is somehow an obvious solution, and complaining that Google isn't helping, I'm wondering if you can actually explain how
it can do a better job, because the more I think through it, the less I think it's even remotely possible for Google to do what the industry wants.