UK Government Pressuring Search Engines To Censor Results In Favor Of Copyright Industries

from the backroom-deals dept

One of the most insidious aspects of recent Internet policy-making is that much of it is taking place behind closed doors, with little or no consultation — think of SOPA, PIPA, ACTA and TPP. But there’s another dangerous trend: the rise of “informal” agreements between the copyright industries and Internet service providers.

With the implicit threat that tough legislation will be brought in if voluntary agreements aren’t drawn up promptly enough, governments are using this technique to avoid even the minimal scrutiny that consultations on proposed new laws would permit. This allows all kinds of bad ideas to be forced through without any evidence that they will help and without the chance for those affected to present their viewpoints.

James Firth has a disturbing post about a proposed “voluntary” scheme involving search engines in the UK:

We know laws such as the UK’s Digital Economy Act and America’s SOPA/PIPA met incredible resistance from the tech industry and internet users, and readers of this blog and Open Rights Group supporters are already aware the UK government has switched tack from legislating to encouraging agreements directly between service providers and copyright owners.

What we didn’t know until now is the extent that the UK government and in particular Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, Communications and the Creative Industries, is pressurising search engines to police search results in a way that goes well beyond notice and take-down.

I’m told a consortium of search engines at a meeting on Tuesday were accused of a “retrograde step” after failing to make progress on a proposal by music rights holders for a system to promote “good” music resellers and demote “bad” in the search rankings.

What is being proposed is out-and-out censorship and doctoring of search engine results through the use of blacklists and whitelists:

The blacklist is of websites accused of infringement. These sites will never appear in search results. That’s the whole site, not just the pages from the site with infringing content. And this is not a court process, it’s a notification system allowing studios to tell search engines directly who the bad guys are.

A white-list of “approved” online music and film services will be artificially promoted for music/film oriented searches.

That is, absolute power over search engines’ results in these areas would be handed to industries that hardly have a good track record for adopting a proportionate approach to tackling unauthorized downloads. In particular, they are unlikely to lose much sleep over all the legitimate content that will become invisible when sites of borderline legality are removed from search engines’ results “just to be on the safe side.” And there are no indications that there would be any oversight as to who goes on the lists, or any right of appeal — making it a purely extra-judicial punishment.

The good news is that the search engines seem to be resisting this move — for the moment. As Firth writes:

I’m told that whilst search engine providers are both keen to strictly abide by all national laws and also willing to work with content owners to provide easy-to-use notice and take-down systems (under the EU E-Commerce Directive and US DMCA), they are “drawing the line” at doctoring search results to suit one relatively small group of economic interests.

The whitelist is anyway problematic, since it might be seen as collusion in anti-competitive behavior, and incur the wrath of the European Commission. Worryingly, one other suggestion from the copyright industries seems to be more acceptable: cutting off the funding of sites in the same way that SOPA proposed.

On funding a meeting was held last Wednesday at the Department for Media, Culture and Sport between rights holders, and advertisers and payment service providers.

I’m told in that meeting a broad consensus was reached to create a blacklist of websites where no advertiser would be allowed to advertise or face expulsion from industry bodies such as the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB).

But even that seems an extremely dangerous step to take because it raises important questions about who will draw up such a blacklist, on what criteria, and how will those placed on it be able to appeal.

That exposes one of the key problems with these “voluntary” agreements: those pushing for them have no interest in striking a balance, or in building in safeguards for those most affected — it’s all about getting a quick-and-dirty fix and to hell with the consequences. That’s why legislation, with full consultation from all parties, is a far better way of proceeding. After all, it’s why we have a legislative process with checks and balances in the first place — to craft a solution that is both workable and fair. The new fashion for backroom agreements among a small group of unelected insiders is nothing less than an attack on that process, and hence on democracy itself.

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Comments on “UK Government Pressuring Search Engines To Censor Results In Favor Of Copyright Industries”

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MPHinPgh (profile) says:

A simple solution?

So, why don’t the search engines simply agree to abide by the “wishes” of the studios and the governments. but explicitly state in the search results that is only presenting what the government allows them to present.

Think about the sh*tstorm that would be created if you searched for a song or movie, and at the top of the result set it stated in nice, big, bold text “The U.K. Government, in cooperation with the MPAA and/or RIAA, have limited us to showing you the following results. There are other sites that asre pertinent to your query, but we are not allowed to show them to you.”

I seem to think that would draw a lot of attention to the issue.

Chuck Norris' Enemy (deceased) (profile) says:


First you assume we don’t fight piracy, say, by not infringing on copyrights (I know, it is hard for you to believe that not everybody on the internet isn’t downloading). But, no, we will not actively fight piracy by advocating law that will benefit a small fraction of the economy (gatekeepers and middlemen) at the expense of our freedoms.

Anonymous Coward says:

Ed Vaizey is a sneaky piece of crap! it was him that announced about 3 days before the ruling to block TPB in the UK that website blocking was going to be expanded VERY SOON and certain people (Fergal Sharkey and his BPI cronies?) under the disputed DMCA. to me that shows how he is influencing the courts. what he is doing now is paving the way for out and out censorship in the UK! and i bet it’s all to do with the ‘Special Relationship’ (total fear of!) between the UK and the US! Cameron is just as big a gutless arse hole as well, never thinking about the people only about his own personal agenda! that was shown when he wanted to ban using Blackberrys because of the London riots, taking away the right to communicate

Rekrul says:

I wonder what would happen if all the search engines got together and blacklisted all the entertainment industry related web sites. After all, they’re under no obligation to include sites in their results, right? If the corporations can demand that certain sites be blocked, the search engine can block other sites as well, can’t they?

Hephaestus (profile) says:


Lets create a petition for Google to do a week of no searching for big contents products. No music, news, movies, TV stations, etc.

“We petition Google to remove all listings to any content owned by the following companies … for the period of one week. Allowing only those links explicitly provided in advance by the content owners to appear in search terms. Proof of ownership required.

The Groove Tiger (profile) says:


Blah blah blah you deserve it because you’re dirty pirates.

Yadda yadda who cares if you are flayed alive and cooked the fact is someone downloaded a mp3 somewhere.

Jabber jabber since someone has infringed at some point some unjustified law that was approved without the consent of those ruled, it is just fair that we make up any rules for punishing anyone that isn’t even remotely linked to them.

Anonymous Coward says:

But there’s another dangerous trend: the rise of “informal” agreements between the copyright industries and Internet service providers.

I warned you that you’d have been happier with the final negotiated version of SOPA then you will be with these agreements. The hysterics surrounding SOPA changed the battlefield forever. You already saw the six strikes policy put in place. You will see other industry agreements with content providers as companies like Google and Facebook expand their own content businesses. ICANN and other US internet ecosystem players will be increasing open to accommodate enforcement and voluntary action. Payment providers are already largely on-board. Just ask RapidGator who went out of business after PayPal cut them off. Foreign aid and will be leveraged against compliance and enforcement. And this is all largely a result of the anarchy over the SOPA debate. No putting that genie back in the bottle. So enjoy the fallout.

Anonymous Coward says:

stop trying to justify having SOPA or any other freedom diminishing piece of legislation. this underhanded behaviour was on going before that. trouble is, it was/is as bad as ACTA etc because it is not being discussed by all affected parties and threats are being used to bring things into play. the tory government and Cameron in particular are showing the true colors. but, as with all politicians, lying is part of the job. i doubt if the british people will wait the full 5 years before the next general election is called

Anonymous Coward says:


Anarchy over the SOPA debate? There were periods of rampant lawlessness during the SOPA debate? Are you sure you’re not conflating the democratic process where a constituent contacts the person elected to represent them and voices their opinion with anarchy?

I think you may be forgetting that when the DMCA passed there was a dramatic upswing in the number of ‘voluntary’ agreements that were put in place afterward. The fact that SOPA’s indemnification for ecosystem players acting as Big Content lapdogs wasn’t made law is the reason there won’t be a dramatic upswing in these kinds of agreements and it’s the reason that if such agreements are put in place there is actually a chance they will be struck down in court as opposed to absolutely no chance what-so-ever under SOPA.

Anonymous Coward says:


I predict that it will be the Content Cartels who will ultimately wishing they had left well enough alone. They are motivating people that don’t normally pay attention to political dealings to get involved in a very large way that could radically change the way the entire legislative system works in order to end their abuse of it. I agree the battlefield is changing rapidly however not in the way you think.

Anonymous Coward says:


Consider the fact that such constitutional incites as due process, censorship and free speech are rights protected from government action. Corporations have no such duties so those components are removed from the discussion by default. The claptrap about breaking the internet will be hard to argue when those who control those functions are agreeing to do so.

So what will you rail about, other than you don’t like it? Congress washes its hands in the Holy Water because it is a lawful commercial agreement and can even decry it if they think it will get them votes. But don’t expect a legislative response.

Anonymous Coward says:


if such agreements are put in place there is actually a chance they will be struck down in court as opposed to absolutely no chance what-so-ever under SOPA.

Like agreements blocking/filtering spam, malware, phishing, child porn, etc. have been struck down? Watch what happens when throttling takes place under the six strikes agreement. These companies have the right, if not duty to manage their networks. You are utterly delusional to believe a court will rule otherwise.

Anonymous Coward says:


I was referring to the swell of communal attempts to draft legislation to address the corruption used by these corporate criminals. Sure many of these attempts will likely fail along the way but the need for them is now ever apparent to everyone and that will not go away. I predict that they will evolve until they are successful and effective. And the Content Cartels will eventually fall into the tar like the dinosaurs that they are.

Anonymous Coward says:

“That exposes one of the key problems with these “voluntary” agreements: those pushing for them have no interest in striking a balance, or in building in safeguards for those most affected “

Do you ever stop being a piracy apologist?

Do you think the current system is balanced, where the pirates and people who use content without permission are giving an equal stand with those who produce it or pay for the right to use it? Where is the balance there?

Sorry Glyn, but you are becoming more and more transparent by the day. Do you run a pirate site by chance?

Gwiz (profile) says:


If every person on TechDirt actively fought AGAINST piracy you could make some progress toward moving piracy off of the web. Fighting against those who are fighting against piracy isn’t accomplishing ANYTHING.

Why would I want to spend my time, energy and money fighting against something I don’t really care about? Piracy is not MY problem. If the rights holders want to waste their resources fighting against piracy, I say have at it.

I have issues with the rights holders trying to use tax payer money in this fight. I have issues when this fight intrudes on my privacy. I have issues when this fight results in censorship. I have issues when this fight threatens the open internet and the free exchange of information. And I have issues when this fight results in collateral damage of innocent parties.

Those are the things I will fight against.

Machin Shin (profile) says:


I love how arogent you guys are at least. You really think that filtering search results will really have a lasting effect? Come on, companies spend millions on trying to lock down their stuff with DRM only to have it cracked by some 12 year old.

There are already peer-to-peer search engines and they will only become more powerful as people look to get around censorship. So what will these deals do? They will kill off any search engine who agrees to them.

I fear it is you my friend who is trying to put the genie back in the bottle. The world has had a taste of what it is like to have instant access to information. Try as you like to stop it people will find a way. The only way to stop the spread of information now is to bring down the entire system.

Machin Shin (profile) says:


How about the balance between their right to protect their stuff and my right to use what I PAID for. You seem to want to pretend this junk only effects the “filthy pirates”. Well guess what? All this DRM bullshit only AFFECTS PAYING CUSTOMERS. I know this because I have used both bought copies and downloaded copies of several products. The ones I download are EASIER to use.

So what is the point of DRM then? It does not slow a pirate down AT ALL. Instead it makes it so that the bluray I BOUGHT will not play in my computer. Oh, and netflix also will not work on Linux BECAUSE OF DRM. So someone who tries to follow the law and consume content legally gets beat to death with this damn DRM while the pirates kick back and enjoy life.

Anonymous Coward says:


Exactly!When people start realizing on a massive scale where their government interests truly lie, how long before they start censoring unflatering posts, comments or heaven forbid whole sites under the guise of terrorism, hell, they’ll do it for something minor, they’d like us to think that, like copyright, they ease us into it, and then use that foundation to truly take the internet by the balls, and turn it into a useless piece of crap !

John Fenderson (profile) says:


Do you think the current system is balanced, where the pirates and people who use content without permission are giving an equal stand with those who produce it or pay for the right to use it? Where is the balance there?

Ah, I see that you’re thinking of “balance” in terms of copyright owners vs pirates. We’re talking here about balance in terms of copyright owners vs the general public.

I will not accept having copyright owners damage me, a nonpirate, in their quest to stem piracy.

Seegras (profile) says:


“Software Piracy (?soft-?wer ?pI-r&-sE): Robbery of software on the high seas; the taking of software from others on the open sea by open violence; without lawful authority, and with intent to steal.”

Well, there is indeed a problem with piracy, and the IMB is fighting against it:

However, if any fucking asshole comes along and compares illegal copying to a crime which every year takes dozens of lifes, then this is plain disrepspectful to the victims.

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