Google on Friday said that websites accused of copyright infringement may soon appear lower in search results lists. As a result, such websites are less likely to be seen by searchers and less likely to be visited.
"Starting next week, we will begin taking into account a new signal in our rankings: the number of valid copyright removal notices we receive for any given site," said Google SVP of engineering Amit Singhal in a blog post. "Sites with high numbers of removal notices may appear lower in our results."
This is a bad idea. It is the very evil that Google in its unofficial motto says it will try not to do.
Google for years has made changes in the name of its users. Now, it's making changes at the expense of its users. People use Google because it continues to provide the highly relevant results for submitted search terms. Reducing the relevance of links associated with a copyright complaint may please aggrieved copyright holders but it's a betrayal of Google's bargain with its users. What's next, distorting Google Maps when users seek the location of flea markets, where all manner of unlicensed content may be sold?
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There are legitimate reasons to make certain websites appear lower in search results lists, or not at all. Google already does this for clearly unlawful content and at the request of users themselves, through SafeSearch filtering.
But a copyright claim, a DMCA takedown notice, does not mean the content in question is necessarily unlawful. There have been many examples of DMCA claims that turned out to be improper. Takedown notices are sometimes used to suppress lawful speech. They sometimes claim ownership of content that isn't owned or is defensible as fair use. The DMCA process is easily abused and there's very little downside in doing so.
Singhal acknowledges this by noting that it will continue to provide counter-notice tools "so that those who believe their content has been wrongly removed can get it reinstated." But in so doing, he underscores the reason that Google should avoid becoming an arm of copyright law: The company isn't qualified to make legal judgements.
We have a legal system because issues like copyright are hard and often require legal processes to resolve. Litigation may be expensive, but that's as it should be, so people don't make trivial claims. Hollywood studios have shown that they're willing to sue to stop illegal copyright infringement. They should continue to do so.
But Google Search should not participate in copyright enforcement any more than a hardware store should restrict the sale of hammers to prevent a potential crime. It should not circumvent the judicial process by passing judgment on websites just because someone complains. The legal system presumes innocence until guilt is proven; Google should make the same presumption.
Here's a thought experiment: Imagine if the Google logo were replaced with the FBI emblem and the search button said, "See all government approved results." Would you use that search engine? Probably only if it were required by law, and thankfully we don't live in that country, at the moment.
A better approach would be for Google (along with other ad networks) to withhold payments for online ad clicks and impressions at sites accused of infringement. If copyright infringement is proven, withheld ad payments can be added to damages paid to wronged copyright holders. In so doing, Google could help deter infringement without tampering with search relevancy.
If Google persists in demoting websites subject to complaints, it may well hasten its demise. Google must serve its users before potential business partners. Commercial censorship shouldn't be any more acceptable than the political censorship that Google repudiated in China.
If the cloud becomes hostile territory, where relevance is bestowed to protect outmoded business models and to enforce laws made unworkable by technology, computer users will build local search engines that run on personally created indexes. Why employ an intermediary if the intermediary works against you? The idea may seem absurd at the moment, when search relies on massive data centers. But only a few decades ago, the idea of personal computers was laughable.