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Showbiz Lobby Puts Capitol Hill Pressure on Google to Take Action on Piracy

The showbiz lobby and a number of lawmakers on Wednesday singled out Google and other search engines for being a gateway to pirated online content, unveiling a study that showed the “critical role” that engines play in guiding users to infringing movies and TV shows.

The timing of the study is no coincidence: a House Judiciary subcommittee is holding a hearing on Wednesday afternoon on the impact of voluntary agreements that have been struck between content companies and other entities, like Internet providers and payment processors, in an effort to curb piracy.

But no agreement exists between Google and other search engines. With standalone legislation unlikely, the strategy of the MPAA and the Recording Industry Assn. of America has been to put pressure on search giants to come to the table and hash out some sort of voluntary pact.

“Search engines bear responsibility for introducing people to infringing content, even people who aren’t actively looking for it,” said MPAA chairman Chris Dodd, who unveiled the results of the study along with Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.).

Among the findings in the study, financed by the MPAA and prepared by Millward Brown Digital, were that the “majority” of search queries that lead users to to infringing film and TV content “do not contain keywords that indicate specific intent to view this content illegally.” The study found that 58% of queries from users “contain generic or title specific queries only, indicating that consumers who may not explicitly intend to watch content illegally ultimately do so online.”

The study showed that 82% search queries that led to infringing URLs came via Google.

In August 2012, Google announced a plan to take into account the number of takedown notices that a site receives in determining search rankings. The RIAA and the MPAA have argued that little has changed since the policy was announced, while Google has argued that the methodology that the showbiz lobby has used is flawed.

The latest MPAA-backed study was based on a database of 12 million film and TV content URLs known to host infringing content from 2010 to 2012. The database came from two companies that scan the Internet for movie and TV show titles.

Last week, Google’s legal director for copyright, Fred von Lohmann, unveiled a report that outlined how the company was fighting piracy, including its Content ID system on YouTube in which copyright holders have received “hundreds of millions of dollars” in royalties by monetizing user-generated content that includes their works. Google said that last year, it disabled ad services to more than 46,000 sites for violation of their copyright policies. It also said that its average turnaround time in responding to removal notices from copyright holders is less than 6 hours, with requests made for some 57 million web pages in 2012.

Google is likely to be a focus at today’s House hearing, where one of those testifying, RIAA chairman Cary Sherman, is expected to focus on search engines. In prepared remarks, he was expected to call into question steps that Google and other search engines have taken, calling them “at its best [a] wasted effort on a solution that doesn’t work and at worst lip service that merely buys time and, often, money from advertising revenue the linking generates.”

He said that search engines should “take into account not only the absolute number of copyright removal requests sent about a site to trigger demotion of that site, but also whether that site is authorized to provide the content to trigger a higher search rank.” He also said that Google could use the same technology to eradicate links to child pornography images to remove links to other illegal content.

A representative from Google or any other search engine is not among those scheduled to testify at the hearing. But the company and other search engines have been adamant about not taking on the role of Internet policeman.

Update: Google had no comment, but Michael Beckerman, the president and CEO of the trade group The Internet Assn., said that the “content industry persists in its fixation on blaming the Internet and technology for its problems. In reality, the Internet is empowering content creators and consumers to access more lawful content than ever before.” He added that the “MPAA fought the VCR years ago and that technology ended up being a boon to their industry. We’ll see that same story repeat with the Internet.”

The Consumer Electronics Assn. challenged the conclusions of the study. “Search engines don’t ‘introduce’ consumers to infringing content — most consumers simply want legal, conveniently accessed digital content at a reasonable price. Indeed, studies show that unauthorized downloading decreases as legal alternatives proliferate,” said Michael Petricone, senior VP of government and regulatory affairs for the org.

He added, “Commercial piracy is wrong and illegal. Violators should be prosecuted under existing laws. But the answer is not restrictions on search engines or the ability of Internet users to access information.”

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