Google, the world’s most influential search company, is about to take on a new role: Piracy cop.
The company says it will demote the search rank of Web sites that feature allegedly pirated content. Traffic plummets when a site is demoted, and since ad revenue is tied to page views, its revenue plummets as well.
The action was spurred, Google says, by a flood of copyright removal notices: “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.” Removal notices are sent to Google, when a copyright holder believes a Web site has pirated it’s content and wants the content removed.
The announcement, made in a blog post a few days ago, has sparked concern from free-speech advocates like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and lukewarm support from Hollywood and the record industry, groups that would be happier if Google went even further and make those Web sites disappear entirely from the rankings.
Piracy on the Web is a tough issue. Writers, musicians, movie makers, photographers and artists all deserve to be paid for their work. Indeed if they’re not, those creative people can no longer afford to produce the content that downloaders enjoy. But the big cigars of the entertainment industries and their paid allies in Congress have tried to pass draconian laws like the failed SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) that went much too far, and would have made it far too easy for copyright holders to punish allegedly offending Web sites.
Having Google step into the fray is a mixed blessing. I’d much rather see the Internet cleanup its own act than have the government send in the cops. Unfortunately, there are some real problems in the action that the search giant is launching.
The problem, as attorneys for the EFF said in a post, is that Google’s announcement is short on some crucial details. It says it will act against sites that have been slapped with “a high number of removal notices.” But how high is high? What’s more, there doesn’t appear to be a process or recourse for sites that believe they have been unfairly demoted, the EFF adds.
John Bergmayer, an attorney with the digital rights group Public Knowledge, said in a press release that Google’s system could be abused by those who want to sink competitors’ sites. After all, anyone can make an accusation.
Why should consumers care about this?
“Demoting search results – effectively telling the searcher that these are not the websites you’re looking for – based on accusations alone gives copyright owners one more bit of control over what we see, hear, and read,” wrote EFF attorneys Julie Samuels and Mitch Stoltz.
Piracy is a real problem, and I suspect that Google’s motives are good ones, but the the company should think through the issue a bit more, and find a more constructive way to punish the pirates without hurting innocent Web sites and abridging the legitimate rights of users.
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. His work appears regularly in CIO.com and the publications of Stanford's Graduate School of Business and the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. He welcomes your comments and suggestions.