When Google’s Eric Schmidt appears before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday to answer antitrust questions, the entertainment lobby will be watching — and it’s likely that more than a few in the biz will harbor a feeling of satisfaction in seeing him in the hotseat.
Google’s relationship with Hollywood has at times been chilly, but among lobbyists in Washington it’s often more like permafrost, as the industry lobby complaints that the search giant hasn’t done nearly enough to combat piracy, or in some cases is aiding and abetting it. Industry lobbyists are making some effort to persuade lawmakers on the Senate antitrust subcommittee to query Schmidt about copyright issues, but the session is focused on concerns that Google has grown to a point where competitors are at a disadvantage.
Schmidt is scheduled to speak first, followed by a panel that includes Jeff Katz, CEO of NexTag, and Jeremy Stoppelman, co-founder and CEO of Yelp.
“Anybody in the larger entertainment industries has had to deal with antitrust issues,” said Chris Castle, a music and technology lawyer. “They have had their mergers and acquisitions scrutinized. We have a long history in the entertainment business of dealing with government. So the idea that a company could amass a fortune without having to account for what a lot of people see are pretty egregious shortcomings is frustrating.”
“The fact that he has agreed to testify…I think is the beginning of something, but it is only the beginning,” he added.
In advance of the hearing, Google has set up a blog page refuting the notion that it’s the omnipresent gateway to the web. “Using Google is a choice. Sure, Google has lots of users, but Google is more like a GPS for the Internet — a helpful guide, but not necessary to get around,” the post stated, noting that sites once-thriving AOL and MySpace were also once called “gatekeepers.”
Schmidt is opposed to the most significant piece of Hollywood-backed legislation to come before Congress this year, the Protect IP Act, which is aimed at the cutting off support for “rogue” sites that are devoted to trafficking in pirated content. The Senate version has a provision that requires that “information location tools,” like search engines, take measures to remove or disable access to “rogue” sites and to remove hypertext links, But Schmidt has called the proposed legislation “simple solutions to complex problems,” and said that the bill’s method of cutting off illegal sites’ access to the domain name system had free speech implications.
Nevertheless, for some time Google has been well aware that it is an increasing target, and has expanded its lobbying presence in the Capital.
In April, Google’s general counsel Kent Walker faced a House hearing in which he had to fend off criticism from some lawmakers that the company had not done enough to limit listing of pirated content atop search results and in its autocomplete feature. Walker insisted that Google has been playing “the Whac-A-Mole game” as much as other companies, but he cautioned Congress to not go overboard in mandating what search engines can and cannot do.
Late last year, Google announced a series of steps to combat online infringement, 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. On Sept. 2, Walker posted a progress report on a Google blog in which he said, among other things, that they have improved procedures to make sure that its AdSense program doesn’t appear on sites with pirated content, and that legitimate music sites are getting greater visibility. “There is plenty more to be done, and we look forward to further refining and improving our processes in ways that help both rightsholders and users,” Walker wrote.
The Recording Industry Assn. of America, however, found the progress wanting.
“We appreciate that Google is working with us to develop a system to send Google bulk notices about the use of AdSense on sites that facilitate online theft,” wrote Steven Marks, the RIAA’s executive vice president and general counsel. “However, given the significant benefits Google receives from these services and its commitments via the official guidelines that regulate advertisers, Google should do more to ensure that it does not place and profit from ads on sites that offer illegal content.”
He added that Google continues to list unauthorized sites before legitimate ones in search results, and, while it has improved the speed with which it responds to takedown notices, it hasn’t been “effective in terminating repeat offenders.”