Google tweaks search to pinch piracy

MPAA optimistic, but notes "devil is in the details"

Google will begin to factor copyright concerns into the way it ranks its search results, after facing withering criticism from Hollywood and other content industries for giving prominence to sites offering pirated movies, music and TV shows.

On Google’s blog on Friday, senior VP of engineering Amit Singhal said that starting next week, the search giant would “begin taking into account a new signal in our rankings: the number of valid copyright removal notices we receive for any given site. Site with high numbers of removal notices may appear lower in our results.”

For years, Hollywood studios and record labels have complained that Google’s rankings often list pirated material prominently at the expense of legitimately offered content providers like Hulu and Spotify. Some lawmakers have made this point in congressional hearings, often to pressure Google to alter its search algorithms. At a congressional hearing in April, Google general counsel Kent Walker defended the steps that it had taken and said that the challenge was to “make sure the terms we are blocking are for infringing material and not legitimate material.”

But Singhal wrote that “since we rebooted our copyright removals over two years ago, we’ve been given much more data by copyright owners about infringing content online.” He added that Google was receiving and processing more copyright removal notices every day “than we did in all of 2009 — more than 4.3 million URLs in the last 30 days alone.”

He said that while the new steps will influence the way search results are ranked, Google won’t remove any pages unless it receives a “valid” copyright removal notice from the content holder. A “counter-notice” tool will continue to be available so those who believe their material was wrongly removed can get it reinstated.

Cary Sherman, chairman of the Recording Industry Assn. of America, which has long pressed Google to change its algorithms, said that by taking such a step Google “has signaled a new willingness to value the rights of creators.” He called Google’s announcement a “potentially significant change,” with rankings improved for legitimate music sites.

“This change is an important step in the right direction — a step we’ve been urging Google to take for a long time — and we commend the company for its action,” he said, adding that the RIAA hoped Google would take further steps, and much will depend on how the new policy is carried out.

Michael O’Leary, senior exec VP for public policy at the MPAA, said, “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.”

Some digital rights groups warned, however, that the new policy would lead to what John Bergmayer on Public Knowledge’s policy blog called “unintended consequences.”

“Because notices to search engines might not be challenged, entities with questionable copyright claims might be more willing to send such notices,” he wrote. “And because being highly ranked on Google can be so important, there’s a strong incentive for entities to send DMCA notices to search engines to suppress their rivals.”