Google on Friday announced a potentially drastic change in its search engine: Beginning next week, Google will start adjusting search results — the list of links that a user gets after typing a search into Google — so that websites accused of copyright infringement appear further down in the list.
As Google’s senior vice president of search, Amit Singhal, explained in an official company blog post:
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.
Google’s Singhal said that the change will actually “help users” in the sense that now, searches for digital media like TV and music will be more likely to pull up “legitimate, quality sources of content” — that is, websites that are unquestionably lawful — such as streaming video website Hulu and streaming music tracks on NPR Music.
A Google spokesperson further explained to TPM in a statement that “we will only be counting valid copyright removal notices, submitted under penalty of perjury by copyright owners, that meet our takedown criteria.”
Google also already publishes a list of those domains that have received “valid” copyright removal requests in the past month and year: No surprise, torrent file-sharing websites lead the list, including extratorrent.com and torrenthound.com.
But Google’s brief description of what could be a fairly monumental change in search around the entire Internet raises many more questions than it answers, leading to concerns from Web user advocacy groups.
“What is a ‘high number’? How does Google plan to make these determinations?” asked Julie Samuels and Mitch Stolz, attorneys at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in a blog post shortly after Google’s announcement Friday. The EFF is a San Francisco-based digital user rights advocacy group.
Reached by telephone, Samuels elaborated on her groups’ issues to TPM.
“The problem here is that the process is really opaque,” Samuels said. “We don’t know how this is going to work. It does not appear that there is any clear process for websites to object or protest [having their page rank lowered].”
Further, Samuels said that even without the change, copyright takedown notices have negatively impacted many websites that were later to be found legitimate, including the infamous case of Dajaz1, a hip-hop website seized by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency in December 2010 and taken offline for a year only to be restored later when the government elected not to pursue a case against the website’s owner.
“We’ve seen in many instances just how over-broad these [copyright takedown notices] can be,” Samuels said. “We’ve seen content owners make claims to take down speech that is not unlawful.”
Google’s spokesperson told TPM that “we also provide counter-notice tools for anyone concerned that their content has been wrongly removed,” though declined to specify what these tools are.
Further, it remains to be seen just what Google considers to be a “valid copyright removal notice.” One common standard is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA) , a U.S. law signed by President Clinton back in 1998 that allows copyright owners to swiftly lodge complaints against websites that are accused of hosting infringing material, ordering them to take it down or be subject to further legal action (read: lawsuits). A “safe harbor” provision of the DMCA states that websites are not liable if they make efforts to remove infringing material.
Though a U.S.-based company, Google also operates many services and products, including its popular search engine, around the globe, so it is unclear just which other country laws and even U.S. court orders and filings Google will consider to be “valid” enough to push down the page rank of websites accused of copyright infringement.
Google’s statement to TPM that it will only count removal notices “submitted under penalty or perjury” would seem to leave the door open to many types of different removal requests.
Google has its own automated online process allowing those who believe their content was infringed upon to complain and petition the search engine to remove it. Google notes during this process that it will send “each legal notice we receive…to the Chilling Effects project for publication and annotation.” Chilling Effects is a free speech monitoring website maintained by several major U.S. universities that is designed to call out instances where speech is suppressed or quenched online. As Google notes, though the website will make it clear whenever someone is accused of infringement, the accuser’s identity gets to remain secret: “Chilling Effects will redact the submitter’s personal contact information (i.e. phone number, e-mail and address).”
Another advocacy group, D.C.-based Public Knowledge, pointed out that Google’s new system, which takes into account the number of copyright complaints, appears to incentive copyright holders to file many removal requests.
“Google has set up a system that may be abused by bad faith actors who want to suppress their rivals and competitors,” said Public Knowledge attorney John Bergmayer in a statement sent to TPM.
The EFF, Public Knowledge and many other advocacy groups were previously supportive of Google for standing up to attempts by Washington legislators and copyright holders like major Hollywood studios to force the search engine to remove from its results pages links to websites accused of copyright infringement.
Two bills that Congress was considering in January, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT-IP Act (PIPA) included in some versions provisions to make Google do just this, but both bills lost support and weren’t passed after a massive online protest by Web users and websites, including Google itself, that involved websites “blacking-out” parts or all of their homepages to illustrate what impact the laws could have on the internet.
The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which strongly supported SOPA, applauded Google’s move Friday. As MPAA executive Michael O’Leary said in a statement:
“We are optimistic that Google’s actions will help steer consumers to the myriad legitimate ways for them to access movies and TV shows online, and away from the rogue cyberlockers, peer-to-peer sites, and other outlaw enterprises that steal the hard work of creators across the globe. We will be watching this development closely - the devil is always in the details - and look forward to Google taking further steps to ensure that its services favor legitimate businesses and creators, not thieves.”
Still, the EFF was happy about one thing: Google isn’t going all the way and removing the pages, as the MPAA and SOPA supporters originally advocated — at least not yet.
“To Google’s credit, it said it’s not removing any sites from search results based on this announcement,” Samuels added.