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.

And here’s the same same thing for “Frozen” “Watch Frozen” and “Watch Frozen free” with the same basic results:
If this looks vaguely familiar, it’s because just a few weeks ago, we called out a silly news report that did the same thing with the search term “watch house of cards.” After we showed, via Google trends, that no one does that search, even the reporter on the original piece went back and edited his piece to note this fact. But, once a story is out there, it’s hard to kill it off — and I recently heard from a reporter who told me that MPAA-connected people were out pushing that original bogus “watch house of cards” story to try to drum up more press coverage on it. And, sure enough, later in the hearing that exact example came up — by someone who clearly didn’t understand the details.

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.

And yet, he then demands of Google, how can it stop this thing that isn’t actually happening from happening. Oyama immediately points out that if he actually did a search on House of Cards he’d see only legitimate links. Poe cuts her off:

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?

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Comments on “Someone Please Tell Congress That 'Free' Is Not Illegal & Not To Lie About Bogus Search Results”

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Angel (profile) says:

You know we should create a website that allows users to google the name of a movie or t.v. show and then takes a screenshot of the search results. Then we have the screenshots sent to (insert representative name here).

We should then proceed to advertise this in every way possible and have as many people as we can bombard (insert representative name here) with those screenshots along with some text explaining how they are full of it.

St. Pat says:

Re: Response to: Angel on Mar 14th, 2014 @ 11:21am

Sending them screenshots of Google returning legitimate content might actually be a good way of protesting this. If this batshit-insane concept ever makes it to the floor, i feel like that could be used to rally visitors to Google, reddit, etc. To protest it.

John Cressman (profile) says:

Idiot politicians

Any congressman/woman who tries to do ANYTHING with technology should be given a basic exam to see if they possess the basic knowledge to make those decisions and if not, then they need to let someone who IS tech savy make the calls.

Same thing with judges! Enough of the ignorant trying to lead the people who actually KNOW.

In fact, didn’t a congresswoman recently claim ON THE FLOOR that the Constitution was 400 years old?!

We elect stupid people and now we have a stupid government – funny how it works that way…

Anonymous Coward says:

Are these congressmen so completely isolated from the real world that they’ve never in all of their lives heard of the term “free sample”?
They are, aren’t they? They’ve been immersed in propaganda and rhetoric for so long that they’ve forgotten what ordinary life is like.
I feel like I should hate them, but all I can feel for them is pity. What miserable, wretched creatures their greed has made of them.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Always look for the 'SOLD' tag...

Crazy people aren’t the problem, if they were just crazy, then you’d have about a 50/50 chance for some good to come out of it. No, the problem is the bought-and-paid-for ones, who will, evidence be damned, do exactly as those paying them tell them to, even if it means, like in this case, making completely obviously false statements in support of their orders.

That One Guy (profile) says:


So correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t Google’s search, over time, modify it’s results based upon what the one searching is looking for? So if he did that search, and all he was seeing was links to pirated content, well, that seems to say a lot more about his search patterns than Google’s search algorithms.

That or he was just flat out lying, which I really wish they’d called him out on, it would have been ridiculously easy to have him list the search results he was seeing, then punch in the same search terms on another computer and list off what it showed that time to compare the two.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Ummm...

“So correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t Google’s search, over time, modify it’s results based upon what the one searching is looking for?”

If you have a Google account and you’re logged into it, yes.

Also, even if you aren’t logged in, if your browser is telling Google your physical location, then the results will be tailored according to that as well.

Personally, I hate that tailoring. It’s one of the reasons I stopped using Google to search for things so much.

Jeffrey Deal (profile) says:

Real Google Results

I just searched for “House of Cards” and went through the first 15 pages of results. I had to skip 5 sites that were in various foreign languages, but aside from those I can confidently state that there were no infringing sites (no place to watch it for free).

In fact the results had quite degraded into uses of the phrase “house of cards” in other contexts.

I have hit page 15 of Google results maybe ten times in my life. It takes an exceptional desperation to travel that far into the desert.

So yeah, total BS.

jupiterkansas (profile) says:

These idiot politicians truly believe the internet should be nothing but a giant store to buy things from. So let’s see who’s really being bought here:

Tom Marino
#5 industry donor – TV/Movies/Music $19,500

Judy Chu
#5 industry donor = TV/Movies/Music $16,000

Plus everyone knows if you want to pirate you search for 12 Years a Slave Torrent, or you don’t search at all and just type

Such idiocy!

Anonymous Coward says:

the scary thing is those like the two senators mentioned, who have less clue than my big toe, but think they know everything, because the entertainment industries have given them a song sheet to readoff, never stop asking the same questions, even though they get the same answers, which are usually the exact opposite of what they wanted. on top of this, because they continue asking questions, other who may or may not have a clue dont get chance to ask their questions, get fed up and just go with the flow. what is such a pity is that if they were to get their way, the clueless ones could then get what everyone else gets and that is locked down, restricted and censored. unfortunately, they carry on ‘pirating’ just the same as before, all with the blessings of the industries. they also never have a clue of the damage they have done to progress and innovation, mainly because they dont have enough time to worry about those things, with so much of their time being taken up checking the ‘encouragement’ they received from the very ones they helped. and dont forget, they are elected into office to represent the people!!

Deimal (profile) says:

Elected Morons

Fucking morons. These assholes need to just stop. These arrogant crack-smoking elected douchebags need to stop. The level of egotism and arrogance it takes to proudly stand as a member of congressional committee and tell a company that essentially INVENTED modern search technology, how it should work, when a) Your claim to any authority is winning a popularity contest in a nation that watches shit like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo (BIIIG success there) and b) You level of familiarity, let ALONE expertise, in technology ends at Windows 95, is FREAKING AMAZING.

What a class of techno-illiterate fuckwads we have trying to regulate something. These assholes for the most part can’t regulate their own sex-drives or drug habits. Probably not a one of these grand-standing luddites has ever done a search by themselves for anything on Google. They need to shut the fuck up, RIGHT NOW.

Eponymous Coward says:

This line of thought also neglects a deeper factor...

That even if Google takes their concern seriously and strikes the word “free” human nature being what it is, especially dealing with our creative use of language, people will route around that by using other words with the same intent. In the end you may censor the words, but that will do little to stop those intending on making use of “free” content! It just turns the situation into an ever escalating arms race where everyone loses.

Anonymous Coward says:

How about this:

Did anyone in Congress do an IMDB title search for the word Free?

Display maxes out at 200 titles returned, there are more than that of course. But basically Hollywood and Congress would like for hundreds, possibly thousands of legitimate works, many of which are created by Hollywood themselves, to be completely unsearchable in the future.


Andrew Norton (profile) says:

If asked:

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!

My answer would be:

Well, first I’d start by ignoring the lobbyist that handed me this question, Rep. Poe, because he’s clearly ignorant about copyright and copyright law. As both the legislation makes clear, and the US Supreme Court has affirmed, you’re not ‘stealing’ anything. Then I’d question the wisdom and fiscal responsbility in holding a hearing just to show the committee member’s ignorance over their supposed subject material and finally I’d suggest that if you were REALLY interested in improving your position in a search engine, you’d do what everyone else does, and hire an SEO company, there’s thousands out there.

Of course, I’d probably be held in ‘contempt’ of Congress for that, but it’s nothing compared to the contempt I feel for these corrupt PetaQ …and the horse they rode in on.

John85851 (profile) says:

Is this real

I wonder if this guy’s behavior is real or if he’s grandstanding so he can say he’s “doing something”. To borrow Apple’s phrase, a “moron in a hurry” can tell that the links for Huffington Post, Facebook, Netflix, and Amazon are legit.

So either this guy is a complete idiot or his staffers told him to say these are illegal sites or he’s grandstanding. None of these options are very good.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Well the problem is that while they’re idiots, they’re also arrogant idiots, used to having all the power they want and having everyone tell them how brilliant they are, so to say they’d react ‘poorly’ to someone blatantly pointing out their idiocy in a snarky or sarcastic manner would probably be severely understating it.

Now, snark and sarcasm may be out, or at least inadvisable, but I totally agree that the google rep should have called him out on his lie, he should have asked the one making the claims to list out, by number, each site he was looking at, and then in return done the same search, and listed out the results he got, as I’m sure they would have been wildly different.

MOre says:

You don't think

you don’t think that perhaps Google, knowing that this was going to be the example, would have gone through and cleaned up the results ever so slightly? It’s one of the few major movies where “free” isn’t given as suggested completion in search.

No, Google wouldn’t be that evil… right?

PS: There is a cross site scripting issue on Techdirt, pages keep locking and IE freaks out with an attempting cross site scripting attack.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: You don't think

“PS: There is a cross site scripting issue on Techdirt, pages keep locking and IE freaks out with an attempting cross site scripting attack.”

After performing a thorough analysis of all the elements involved in your impromptu bug report, I’ve determined the problem is due entirely to the fact that you’re using IE.

Levity aside, the latter is not necessarily an indication of the former.

Anonymous Coward says:

They dont care about doing things right, all they know is that someone told them this thing is broken, and are now waiting on the people their leaning on “yes a’master, we fix tha right a’way, a’sir.”

Idiots, and corporate suck ups, no doubt a few heavy pockets and a few extra favours

They want my trust, earn my trust, do not expect my trust as if they feel entitled to it, and the last thing they should do, is point themselves out as those who DONT have my trust………no actually, thankyou for identifying yourselves………idiots

John Thomas says:

Real problem. Voters

You are all missing the real problem here. Elected officials. The voting community of un retired voters needs to make politicians accountable at the poles.

I lived in Chico, ca. Students at the party college outnumbered towns people 6-7:1 when I was there. Yet every time the city, voted officials, past more laws against partying and other typical college pastimes. The major problem is here there are already laws to cover most of this. The real problem is that the students didn’t vote in there own politicians. They bitched and complained but never did anything about it. It is illegal to drink alcohol on your lawn in Chico. It’s considered a public place. It was intended to stop drinking in communal areas of apartment complexes. Unintended consequences that the police took advantage when it suited them.

I could go on. You know they can’t be sure for anything they say? They sit up there and make inflammatory statements that are wrong and we can’t do a thing about it.

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