When the citizens of the internet rallied against SOPA earlier this year, Google was among the prominent tech companies raising the banner of free speech against Congress' flawed anti-piracy bill. But in implementing changes to its search algorithm this week which lower the ranking of sites that receive too many copyright complaints, Google has imposed its own opaque system of copyright justice that's reminiscent of the despised, Hollywood-sponsored bill it once fought so adamantly against.
The changes, detailed last week in a blog post, effectively dissolve what remains of Google's stance as a neutral search provider, having already announced in May that it would begin offering placement in Google Shopping based on the highest bidder rather than relevance or popularity. From now on, "valid copyright notices" from third parties will affect page rankings in Google’s search results, meaning that any site which receives enough complaints will have its placement on Google's search engine results pages (SERPs) automatically lowered.
In a way, the new system seems to draw from one of the most dangerous aspects of SOPA: its attempt to combat piracy by allowing copyright owners to take direct action against alleged infringing sites. These "private rights of action" would have allowed rightsholders, for example a TV network or film studio, to have sites removed from search engine results, payment processors, and ad networks, leaving the accused infringers out in the cold before it was even determined whether or not the copyright claim was legitimate.
"Without details on how Google’s process works, we have no reason to believe they won't make similar, over-inclusive mistakes."
While not as severe as removing content outright, Google's new page-ranking demerits present a watered down version with a very similar potential for error and abuse. Digital rights advocacy group the Electronic Frontier Foundation notes that although Google has promised to continue publishing details of the copyright notices it receives in its transparency report, it hasn’t made clear the qualifications and vetting process for such notices, or specified how many notices are necessary to demote a site. Nor has it detailed any method of recourse for site owners who have been demoted in search results after being wrongly targeted.
"Without details on how Google’s process works, we have no reason to believe they won't make similar, over-inclusive mistakes, dropping lawful, relevant speech lower in its search results," write EFF staff attorneys Julie Samuels and Mitch Stoltz. They point out that "valid copyright notices" under the DMCA represent allegations of copyright infringement, meaning they have not been reviewed by a judge or intermediary.
The move comes after a long history of repeated demands from content industry lobbyists that Google voluntarily filter its own results to discourage piracy. At the All Things D conference in May, Hollywood powerbroker and SOPA sponsor Ari Emanuel joined his colleagues in accusing the search engine of trying to profit from pirate links appearing in its search results. When questioned by our own Joshua Topolsky on forcing service providers like Google and AT&T to cull the flow of pirated material, Emanuel launched into a tirade which falsely equated piracy with child pornography, asserting that Google can and should block access to the former just as it does with the latter.
Of course, it’s easy to make those claims when you’re a powerful Hollywood oligarch that has no idea how copyright law — or the internet — actually works.
"The problem is that identifying which copyright belongs to who is very complicated."
Google's Susan Wojcicki responded the very next day, calling Emanuel "very misinformed," and saying that Google has done as much as it can to assist copyright owners. "The problem is that identifying which copyright belongs to who is very complicated," she explained. "When I see a piece of content, I don't know if you own the copyright." Google acknowledged this in their recent announcement, saying that it "cannot determine whether a particular webpage does or does not violate copyright law."
The problem persists across other systems like YouTube’s Content ID, which looks for copyrighted content by matching digital fingerprints to uploaded sample material. Last week, a video of the Curiosity rover landing on Mars was removed from NASA’s YouTube page after a false copyright claim from Scripps Media Service, and it wasn’t the first time. The heavily-criticized takedown system is yet another example of the handiwork of entertainment industry lobbyists, who have insisted time and again that the DMCA’s "notice and takedown" procedure doesn’t go far enough to satisfy copyright complaints.
That's even more alarming, considering Google has shown that this procedure is frequently abused as well: In 2009, the company made a submission to the New Zealand-based Telecommunications Carriers Forum saying that 57% of DMCA takedown notices it had received were made by business targeting their competitors, and 37% were invalid copyright claims. Since then, Google has begun receiving more copyright removal notices per day than it did in that entire year — at the time of this writing, over 4.5 million URLs have been targeted in the past 30 days alone.
Google has given the entertainment industry exactly what they want — and it won't be long before they want more.
Despite continuously asserting its commitment to fighting piracy, Google has given Ari Emanuel and the rest of the entertainment industry exactly what they want — and rest assured, it won't be long before they want more. After all, these are the same people who have been citing exaggerated figures to try and perpetuate a myth about piracy bringing their multi-billion dollar industry to its knees.
Google claims the capitulation is in service to users, stating that the goal is to help them "find legitimate, quality sources of content more easily." But with the company’s recent push to establish itself as a media platform (a la Google Play) it seems more likely that the Google chimera is simply sprouting its latest head, unconcerned with cannibalizing its integrity as a search engine in its new quest to foster big media partnerships.
But more important is the disturbing message this sends to the entertainment industry: a little intimidation (and a search engine desperately trying to reincarnate as a streaming media service) can still go a long way.