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Google in D.C. hot seat on piracy

Pols scrutinize illegal content in search results

Google was put on the spot Wednesday at a congressional hearing on online piracy as lawmakers pressed the company on why its search engine continues give top results to unauthorized content such as Taylor Swift songs and soon-to-be-released movies.

Hearing was the second held by a House Judiciary subcommittee as it draws up legislation to crack down on so-called “rogue websites” — sites devoted to selling infringing materials, including those that operate overseas. Legislation has not yet been introduced, but part of the inquiry among lawmakers has been whether Internet service providers, payment providers and search firms bear some responsibility.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the Subcommitte on Intellectual Property, Competition and the Internet, at one point focused on Google’s “autocomplete” feature, which, as if by intuition, displays suggested search terms even if the user types in just a few letters. He said that typing “watch movies online” yields a drop down menu with “watch free bootleg movies” as a suggested search term. A site in the search results “even advertises pre-release movies,” he said.

Google’s general counsel, Kent Walker, stressed how much the company has been working with copyright owners to limit access to infringing content.

“The challenge is to make sure the terms we are blocking are for infringing material and not legitimate material,” Walker said.

Wednesday’s hearing drew an overflow crowd, in part because of the presence of an executive from Google, which has been gaining influence in D.C. but also has become a more frequent target.

Studios and record labels have long been frustrated that Google has not done more. In December, Walker announced a series of piracy-fighting steps, including a vow to act within 24 hours on takedown notices it receives from copyright owners and deleting terms closely associated with infringement from appearing in autocomplete.

“We play the Whac-A-Mole game as much as” other companies, Walker said, adding that it is a “constant battle.”

Lawmakers are expected to craft legislation to enable the Dept. of Justice to seek an injunction to seize the domain names of pirating sites. It’s expected to have substantial bipartisan support, and already there’s a new term that has been coined for the rogue ventures: “para-sites.”

Walker cautioned lawmakers not to go overboard, saying that the “shared responsibility” of existing law, in which a copyright holder issues takedown notices to ISPs and search engines, is already working. He also outlined a series of new engineering efforts to limit access to infringing sites.

There have been concerns among consumer and digital rights groups that too sweeping of legislation would trample on free speech, as even legitimate user-generated sites could get shut down if they unknowingly host pirated content.

The Consumer Electronics Assn. issued a statement Wednesday in which it charged that recent government domain-name seizures, under existing laws, resulted in “the erroneous take down of legitimate music blogs and the slander of thousands of legitimate websites as purveyors of child pornography.”

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