It's Google's Web, We Just Search On It

It's Google's Web, We Just Search On It
Seeking out copyrighted songs and videos on your favorite torrent sites? You may have to look a little harder, thanks to Google.

Late last week Google announced it would penalize sites accused of copyright violations by dropping them in search results. The primary beneficiaries of this move: music companies, Microsoft, and the porn industry. The primary victims? Torrent search engines and content sites not owned by Google.

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In a blog post innocently titled "An update to our search algorithms," Google senior vice president Amit Singhal announced the company was going all in with copyright holders by "taking into account a new signal in our rankings: the number of valid copyright removal notices we receive for any given site."

Sites that receive a high number of takedown notices -- like FilesTube, ExtraTorrent, and TorrentHound -- will drop in search results; how much lower remains to be seen. What constitutes a "valid" request? That seems to be largely determined by the copyright holders themselves, per Singhal:

Only copyright holders know if something is authorized, and only courts can decide if a copyright has been infringed; Google cannot determine whether a particular webpage does or does not violate copyright law. So while this new signal will influence the ranking of some search results, we won't be removing any pages from search results unless we receive a valid copyright removal notice from the rights owner.

Sites that have been wrongly accused of copyright violations and other crimes -- there have been more than a few over the years -- can file a counterclaim, but Google is mum as to how that might affect their ranking in search results.

It's Google's Web, We Just Search On It
Remember, too, that Google is only counting complaints lodged with Google. If you own a content site and your biggest competitor spams Google with removal requests naming your URLs but doesn't send the removal requests to you, how will you know? Will Google notify you, or will your site just stop showing up on the first page of search results? As Public Knowledge blogger John Bergmayer notes, Google's new policy could actually encourage more companies to file bogus removal requests.

One site that won't be affected by this new "signal" is Google's own YouTube. It works on a different reporting system than the one used for other DMCA takedowns and isn't penalized by the new rules. As Dana Carvey's Church Lady might have said, how convenient.

According to Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan, Google will also extend the YouTube exception to other popular sites like Facebook, Twitter, and IMDB, though exactly how it's going to do this is extremely vague, to put it mildly.

That's not the only aspect of this deal that smells like a week-old flounder. Starting last spring, the number of DMCA takedown requests sent to Google began to skyrocket -- from around 300,000 URLs per week at the beginning of April to nearly 1.3 million last week.

It's Google's Web, We Just Search On It
Over the same period, RIAA was quietly admitting that online file sharing has declined significantly over the last year. In an internal presentation leaked to TorrentFreak, RIAA deputy general counsel Victoria Sheckler noted that only 15 percent of copyrighted files were swapped online last year, down from 21 percent in 2010. Far more people are sharing music by swapping USB drives and ripping other people's CDs (the way we used to back in the days of the mix tape).

Logically, one would assume that DMCA removal requests should be going down, not up. Instead, they have quadrupled. And which copyright owners are filing all those takedown requests? You guessed it -- the media companies.

Six of the top 10 copyright owners filing DMCA notices in the past month, representing nearly half of the 4.3 million offending URLs, are music companies. (Rounding out the top 10: three porn companies and Microsoft. Insert your own joke here.)

With the exception of Microsoft, all of these sites ramped up the number of their URL removal requests significantly over the same period. You think maybe Google tipped them off that they were about to make this change to their page-rank algorithm? Yeah, so do I.

This is yet another example of content cartel trying to get other people to do their dirty work for them -- whether it's the U.S. government, your ISP, or now Google. Who will be next?

Is it time to switch search engines? Tell me what you think about this below or e-mail me here: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "It's Google's Web, we just search in it," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

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