Google to Sends Copyright Violators a Message: Watch Your Step or Risk Your Ranking

By Peter Bernstein August 10, 2012

For everyone who has believed that Google is the institutional embodiment of the dark side of “The Force” from the Star Wars movies, today brought some comfort that the company understands the difference between good and evil and is capable of being a power for the former. In a strongly stated blog from Amit Singhal, senior vice president of engineering, the company laid out how starting next week is updating its search algorithms. Singhal stated that:

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.

In three words, “it’s about time!”

This is obviously a reaction to pressure from both those with legitimate goods and supposedly protected intellectual property and governmental agencies that has been building for many years based on concerns that Google’s lax practices regarding search and what appears on YouTube actually can promote piracy.

The posting, defensively, went on to explain that since the company “re-booted” its copyright removals, and agreed to disclose the total daily, they are now processing more copyright removal notices every day than they did in 2009 — more than 4.3 million URLs in the last 30 days alone. They are now going to use this information as a signal in the search rankings.  

This is a step in the right direction, but don’t jump completely for joy just yet. The posting says that Google will not remove websites from search entirely "unless we receive a valid copyright removal notice from the rights owner." And, they will also continue to provide counter-notice tools to those affected in case they want to fight the takedown requests. It seems apparent that mindful of litigation the company wants to be very careful not attract the ire of legitimate businesses who in the Internet Age could be targeted as being abusers by those who intend them harm.

In fact, with litigation clearly in mind, Singhal noted that "only courts can decide if a copyright has been infringed." 

It did not take long for a rebuke of even what some are considering baby steps in terms of what Google should be doing to stop IP piracy. Criticism came from free speech advocates like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). In their own blog post EFF called the Google explanation, "pretty opaque." And, Public Knowledge chimed in saying that it was worried that certain sites might not have the resources to challenge Google, and that: “Google has set up a system that may be abused by bad faith actors who want to suppress their rivals and competitors. . . Sites that host a lot of content, or are very popular, may receive a disproportionate number of notices (which are mere accusations of infringement) without being disproportionately infringing. And user-generated content sites could be harmed by this change, even though the DMCA was structured to protect them."

On the industry side, numerous organization reacted positively with all of the major organizations representing legitimate copyright holders in the music and film industries issuing statement that applauded what they called in similar language a "common-sense step," that is long overdue.

As noted above, there certainly are reasons for concerns that legitimate businesses could either get caught up in a fight with Google over their ranking because of the new signal, especially if someone or organization with malicious intent started flooding Google with requests for removal. Since this was a blog and not a legal document, we are all going to have to wait for the fine print to see how Google addresses the concerns of those who are worried that this puts too much power in the hands for copyright holders and does not have the teeth to protect the innocent. 

All of that being said, the status quo is certainly unacceptable. Piracy is a huge problem and Google allowing bad actors to game the system to get high rankings absolutely needed to do something and should not have waited so long. Whether this turns out to be the best they can do, or whether they can actually work with all of the stakeholders to protect everyone’s interests is certainly problematic, and the company does not have the world’s greatest track record on that front. 

Most of us hate the words, “let’s wait and see,” but for the moment until there is more clarification on the new rules of the road that is precisely what we are all going to have to do. Google may still seem like the bad guys themselves in the eyes of some, but I for one give them a temporary “E” for effort.




Edited by Rich Steeves
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