In Piracy War, Google Seen as Unwilling Ally

Media firms gripe that the search engine remains rife with illicit links

Google styles itself as the apolitical digital librarian of the Internet age — simply connecting people to information they’re seeking. But owners of intellectual property say the search leader isn’t doing enough to curb the growing hordes of pirates stealing their content.

Last August, Google disclosed a change in how its search engine would operate: Sites with a high number of copyright-removal complaints would be ranked lower than those with fewer grievances against them. Theoretically, that would make piracy websites harder to find.

Hollywood and other content industries cautiously cheered the Internet giant’s plan, hopeful that a shift in the way billions of people worldwide find material online would help turn the tide in the sea of illegal activity.

SEE MORE: View All Stories from Our Special Report on Google

But nearly a year later, virtually nothing has changed, according to execs in the media biz — with the same repeat infringers still showing up high in Google’s results.

Yet other companies that intersect with what might be termed “the pirate economy” have made tangible advances in the past year toward starving rogue websites, said Rick Cotton, NBCUniversal’s exec VP and general counsel. Those include payment processors, ad networks and Internet service providers.

By comparison, Google hasn’t made the same kind of progress on search. “The search sector is the furthest behind by far” in addressing piracy, Cotton said. “For legitimate sites to flourish, the ecosystem has to make those easier to find than illegitimate content.”

SEE MORE: Google’s Clout on Capitol Hill Concerns Hollywood

The Motion Picture Assn. of America similarly said it’s seen very little meaningful difference in Google’s search results, with pirate sites generating new links once those flagged as illegal are removed. “Google’s domination of the search market means that consumers need to be able to rely on it to return legitimate results,” a spokeswoman said.

But Google says that completely blocking sites from its index — even those known to traffic in illegal content, like the Pirate Bay or isoHunt — is not the answer to piracy. Even for sites with a large number of removal requests, links to alleged illegal content account for less than 1% of the total pages, the company claims. Blacklisting them would punish them for only a small amount of piracy.

In addition, Google maintains that copyright owners already have powers nobody else is afforded: effectively a lineitem veto removing any search result they don’t like. The company says it responds in less than eight hours to those takedown requests. Moreover, for “clean” searches (that is, queries that don’t intentionally seek out pirated content with verbiage that includes the words “watch free”), Google says the demotion program is in fact working as advertised.

Google argues that it’s attacking piracy where it counts — cutting off advertising money to such sites. The company says its DoubleClick ad network unit has a policy of shunning rogue operators.

Finally, Google says it’s helping rights-holders with YouTube’s Content ID system, which lets content owners opt to place ads against user-uploaded material instead of blocking it.

“Google has taken a leadership role in partnering with the industry to cut off the flow of money to piracy sites, and has invested heavily in copyright tools for content owners,” the company said in a statement. “In addition, Google’s growing partnerships and distribution deals with the content industry benefit both creators and users, and generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the industry each year.”

None of that, however, mollifies entertainment industry execs who want to see Google take a forceful stand on search technology in eliminating pirates.

“Plainly, Google can and should develop and implement stronger filters,” said Miles Feldman, an IP attorney with Raines Feldman, whose clients include Hollywood studios.

While he acknowledged that there appear to have been incremental improvements in Google searches for popular media, Feldman said the difference is “not nearly enough.”

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