For quite some time the RIAA and MPAA have been going on and on about how Google can just "fix" its search results by either removing or punishing sites that are deemed as "pirate" sites. We've explained why this is not as easy
as the entertainment industry thinks it is, but it appears that the pressure has gotten to Google... and they've just announced that they will, in fact, be punishing sites that they deem as bad players
, based on the data they have of how many "valid copyright removal notices" a site gets:
We aim to provide a great experience for our users and have developed over 200 signals to ensure our search algorithms deliver the best possible results. Starting next week, we will begin taking into account a new signal in our rankings: the number of valid copyright removal notices we receive for any given site. Sites with high numbers of removal notices may appear lower in our results. This ranking change should help users find legitimate, quality sources of content more easily—whether it’s a song previewed on NPR’s music website, a TV show on Hulu or new music streamed from Spotify.
Since we re-booted our copyright removals over two years ago, we’ve been given much more data by copyright owners about infringing content online. In fact, we’re now receiving and processing more copyright removal notices every day than we did in all of 2009—more than 4.3 million URLs in the last 30 days alone. We will now be using this data as a signal in our search rankings.
The company notes that it's just one signal of many and that they will only demote the results, but not remove those sites from the index. In fact, they point out, correctly, that "Only copyright holders know if something is authorized, and only courts can decide if a copyright has been infringed; Google cannot determine whether a particular webpage does or does not violate copyright law."
As I understand it, the plan is that for people who search for, say, "watch dark knight rises free online," Google will try to push results that are likely to be unauthorized down the list, and try to have more "authorized" results higher up in the list (though, with a search query like the one above, there may not be any "authorized results" that provide what the person is searching for).
It's that last point where this gets to be troubling. Part of the reason people are searching for such things is that there isn't an easy and legitimate way to get that content. The best result would be for Hollywood to get its act together, realize that its whole windowing procedure is a disaster from the consumers' perspective, and provide more of what consumers want. Instead, the end result is going to be that people do these searches and just get equally frustrated. I don't see how that's good for Hollywood or for Google.
My other concern is that things things that later turn out to be quite legitimate and massive opportunities for authorized and legitimate content, are quite frequently demonized as tools of piracy early on. Imagine an equivalent of this announcement today in the early days of the VCR, when the MPAA insisted that it was evil and infringing. Imagine if when you went into a store to buy a VCR, the store instead pointed you to the movie theater down the road. That might be what Hollywood thought it wanted, but the end result would have been a much smaller home movie market -- not a market that ended up being bigger than the box office market just a few years after Hollywood insisted it was illegal.
Same thing with the first MP3 players. The RIAA sued the Diamond Rio as being a tool for infringement. Imagine if when you went to buy an MP3 player, stores decided to instead tell you you should buy some cassette tapes instead. It enforces an older way of doing business, rather than a new way.
And this applies online as well. Obviously, there's still an ongoing lawsuit against YouTube for copyright infringement, and YouTube certainly gets a ton of "valid copyright removal notices." Would Google demote search results to YouTube based on this? In the past, Google has punished the search results
for other parts of its own business, for violating its rules, so it's entirely possible that YouTube results could get demoted under this system -- though I would imagine that Google believes that the many other "signals" it uses to determine legitimacy would minimize the likelihood of this being an issue.
But... that might not apply to a new up and coming site. Take, for example, the cases of Veoh
. What both of those companies did was deemed legal by the courts, but both companies went bankrupt due to massive legal fees from being sued by the legacy entertainment industry. Imagine if, on top of that, Google also demoted the results from those sites at the same time. Already, Google is facing antitrust scrutiny
for what some companies claim was a policy that demoted Google search results to their pages. While I think those claims are pretty bogus, is Google just opening itself up to a similar antitrust attack on that point?
I recognize that Google has a tricky balancing act here -- trying to keep the entertainment industry off its back, and the governmental pressure that comes with that, while still providing the "best" search results for its users. And I'm sure that Google has tried to use an approach that minimizes the concerns I raise above. But we've already seen, quite clearly, how Google's automated systems often fail
when it comes to copyright issues, and the risk for both abuse and bad results seems quite high. At the very least, it's going to bear very close scrutiny to see how Google handles legitimate sites, who get swept up
in claims of infringement when they're actually providing legitimate services.