Google wants a slice of Apple’s pie, starts punishing pirate sites

It had to happen eventually. Representatives of the media and entertainment industries have been complaining for years about Google linking to sites that offer copyrighted content, accusing the Internet giant of not doing nearly enough to prevent access to infringing material. The company’s stock response has always been that it only indexes the web, and the results that appear when someone types a query into Google simply reflects the sites that people go to, and other sites link to. It’s a fair argument, although one somewhat undermined by last year’s algorithm update that targeted content farms, and showed the company’s willingness to tweak what sites appear where in its index.

Google does of course remove pages when it receives copyright removal notices to do so. In fact, in an effort to demonstrate just how actively, Google recently expanded its Transparency Report to show how many URLs it removes, from where, and at whose request. The figures are staggering. In the last month alone, Google removed over 4.3 million URLs from its index.

But despite efforts to combat piracy from within the confines of the law, Google’s unwillingness to proactively police the Internet on behalf of the music and movie industries has unquestionably impacted the company’s ability to sign content deals with the major players of the entertainment world, especially overseas. And that’s a huge issue for a firm that really wants a slice of Apple’s pie.

So, inevitably, Google has caved in and starting next week the company will begin using the number of copyright removal notices it receives for a given domain to adjust that site’s ranking in the search index. This will, in Google’s words, “help users find legitimate, quality sources of content more easily” but in reality is designed to punish pirate sites without giving the appearance of having capitulated to the entertainment lobbyists. Although in the blog post explaining its move the search giant stresses “we won’t be removing any pages from search results unless we receive a valid copyright removal notice from the rights owner”, burying the sites somewhere near the bottom of the pile will effectively achieve the same result.

While the move will have little impact on seasoned pirates, it may deter casual downloaders who rely on Google to guide them to the sites they need, and in time kill off some of those sites.

The entertainment industry is, naturally, very happy about this latest move. In a statement, Michael O'Leary, the senior executive vice president for global policy at the Motion Picture Association of America, said, "We are optimistic that Google's actions will help steer consumers to the myriad legitimate ways for them to access movies and TV shows online, and away from the rogue cyberlockers, peer-to-peer sites and other outlaw enterprises that steal the hard work of creators across the globe." He didn’t add “Watch out for great new entertainment content coming to Google Play soon” but I expect we’ll see the fruits of this change there soon enough nonetheless.

While I personally have no problem with pirate sites tumbling down Google’s rankings, the fact that the company has shown a clear willingness to change its index -- to present a false view of the Internet -- in order to appease potential content partners is unquestionably troubling and puts the search giant at the top of a very slippery slope.

What’s next? Tweaking its index to give priority to Android over Apple? Favoring sites that have negative things to say about competing products and services? Preferring one political party over another in exchange for certain promises? Maybe not immediately, but now it seems Google is willing to change what we see when we search in order to benefit itself, can we really say for certain it won’t take such steps in the future?

Photo Credit: Yuganov Konstantin/Shutterstock

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