Google constantly tweaks how its search engine delivers results to people, but it's rolling out a major new change next week: it'll start generally downranking sites that receive a high volume of copyright infringement notices from copyright holders. Google says the move is designed to "help users find legitimate, quality sources of content more easily" — meaning that it's trying to direct people who search for movies, TV shows, and music to sites like Hulu and Spotify, not torrent sites or data lockers like the infamous MegaUpload. It's a clear concession to the movie and music industries, who have long complained that Google facilitates piracy — and Google needs to curry favor with media companies as it tries to build an ecosystem around Google Play.
Google says it feels confident making the change because because its existing copyright infringement reporting system generates a massive amount of data about which sites are most frequently reported — the company received and processed over 4.3 million URL removal requests in the past 30 days alone, more than all of 2009 combined. Importantly, Google says the search tweaks will not remove sites from search results entirely, just rank them lower in listings. Removal of a listing will still require a formal request under the existing copyright infringement reporting system — and Google is quick to point out that those unfairly targeted can still file counter-notices to get their content reinstated into search listings.
"Google cannot determine whether a particular webpage does or does not violate copyright law."
Of course, Google's existing copyright system has long had its critics, who claim the system disproportionally favors big companies who abuse it to block legitimate speech. Allowing past abuse to affect future search results is far from ideal, but Google isn't planning to make judgement calls. "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." What Google can do is remain transparent about copyright removals — in May the company began reporting all listing removal requests it's received in the past 30 days, which companies have complained, and which sites they target. The most-targeted domains? filestube.com, downloads.nl, isohunt.com, and torrenthound.com. We'll have to see where they land on search results when Google flips the switch on the new rankings next week.