Someone Please Tell Congress That 'Free' Is Not Illegal & Not To Lie About Bogus Search Results
from the they-don't-seem-to-know-that dept
We already wrote about how much of Thursday’s House Judiciary Committee hearings seemed to focus on the ridiculous and dangerous concept of “notice and staydown,” but that was hardly the only ridiculousness on display at the hearing about the DMCA’s notice and takedown policy / internet safe harbors. If you’ve never watched a bunch of technologically clueless self-important politicians think they know better than actual engineers how to create a search engine, well, go take a look. During the Q&A, Reps. Judy Chu and Tom Marino spent a bunch of time complaining that when they did searches for the names of movies, plus the word “free,” that Google sent them to links for (you guessed it) free (though unauthorized) options to watch those movies.
Chu — who has become the MPAA’s favorite person to feed bogus questions to (though sometimes they forget that they’ve already given the same questions to someone else) — pointed out that she wanted to test out Google by typing “watch,” plus the name of popular movies, specifically 12 Years a Slave and Frozen, and that among the autocomplete options, “watch 12 years a slave free” and “watch frozen free” popped up. To her, this was proof positive that Google is aiding infringement. She later is clearly reading off of notes she doesn’t understand, and makes claims about how Google’s algorithm works concerning demoting sites that get lots of takedowns that are simply not accurate, as she presents her own theories on how Google’s algorithm should work. Because I’m sure she’s programmed lots of search engines.
A little while later, Rep. Marino picks up on this thread (including a laughable claim in which he notes he wants less federal government, but on this issue, he wants more federal government). He directly asks the Google representative on the panel, Katherine Oyama, why can’t Google not return any results if someone searches on a movie name, plus “free.” Oyama quickly points out that “we can’t strike the word ‘free’ from search, because there’s a lot of legitimate, great content that is free.” Marino immediately follows up by arguing that if someone searches for “free,” that’s obviously a problem and “there’s gotta be a process… where that can be flagged.” And then, bizarrely, he mentions that his two teenage kids are writing software programs and shakes his head as if he can’t believe what a world we live in which people write software. And yet he thinks he can better explain to Google how its algorithm should operate.
In a blog post about the hearing, Matt Schruers notes that it’s rather worrisome that elected officials are legitimately suggesting that “free” is somehow bad and should be censored:
One thing I didn’t anticipate was today’s fixation on the word “free” in search results. It is odd that in the United States the word “free” should be so stigmatized, but several members of Congress took issue with search results that contain the word “free,” apparently with the aim that such results should be suppressed.
Of course, every use of the word “free” is not unlawful, even in relation to content. Indeed, there is a considerable amount of free content online (including this site). Some artists give free content away for various legitimate reasons, such as promotional samples. “Free” is a time-honored marketing term, used liberally. Many rights-holders now wisely advertise when they are offering free content, e.g., “get a free trial to the song here”, to better compete with pirated alternatives, or to drive other revenue streams, such as live performances, subscriptions, merchandise. If services started blocking content online using the term “free,” this could easily penalize lawful services providing promotional content in order to crowd out infringing options.
That’s an important point. You can also point out that if people are doing a search on a movie name and “free,” they’re probably not that interested in paying. But, the much more important point — which Oyama tried to point out to both Chu and Marino (and which they both ignored) is that almost no one actually does the searches that has the two of them so upset. I figured I’d check. Here’s the Google Trends report for the terms “12 years a slave” “watch 12 years a slave” and “watch 12 years a slave free.” The yellow line is the name of the movie. The blue is “watch 12 years a slave” and the red line that barely gets off the bottom is “watch 12 years a slave free.” You’ll note, almost all of the searches are for the name of the movie. Very, very, very few searches are done with the “watch” opening. And significantly fewer are done with “free” after. In other words, no one is doing the searches that has Chu and Marino so worked up.
Rep. Ted Poe goes on this bizarre and ridiculous rant about how he just hates thieves. And, of course, he equates infringement to thievery, despite the rather important differences you’d hope an elected official and lawmaker would know (though it’s clear Poe does not). He tops this off by flat out lying at the hearing, suggesting that while sitting there he did a search on Google via his iPhone for “house of cards” and the top results were links to infringing sites. That’s simply not true. At all. As plenty of others quickly checked the search and saw, the links are all perfectly legit.
Oyama: House of Cards is a great example. It feeds into the example of “what type of results are showing up.” So if you Google “house of cards” take a look at what’s there. It’s going to be legitimate stuff. It’s going to be the show’s website… and things about the actors… in terms of feeding back into the search trends conversation…
Poe: Just a second, let me interrupt, because you’ve already lost me. Pull up House of Cards, I think I see the valid House of Cards but I think I see some thievery going on like the second and third and maybe the fourth one. How does that happen?
These are our elected officials. Oyama is telling him that the search doesn’t have unauthorized links, and he immediately cuts her off saying she “lost him” and demanding she explain how something that isn’t happening is happening. Not only that, but he incorrectly believes that there is only one “valid House of Cards” link. Oyama tries again to respond to this, and Poe still isn’t having any of it, bizarrely then asking her how an unauthorized provider might get better rankings.
Poe: Okay, I’m a thief. I’m stealin’ House of Cards. How do I get it to be number two when you pull up “house of cards”? That’s my question!
Oyama points out “it’s not number two” and Poe still doesn’t get it.
Poe: Okay, three, four. Right up near the top.
Oyama again points out that he’s just wrong. It’s not near the top. And Poe gets sarcastic with a giant smirk:
Poe: Oh? Those are all legitimate sites?
Clearly, someone had taken the original silly argument that we had debunked, and given Poe some sort of summary that he didn’t understand, leading him to make the bogus claim that (a) he had done the search, when he clearly hadn’t, and (b) which then resulted in him going on and on about how search results that don’t actually appear could possibly appear, and how Google could stop those results that don’t appear from appearing.
And these are the people who are planning to rewrite our copyright laws?