Google has come under sustained pressure from music rightsholders in the last year about its search engine – and specifically about whether it should be doing more to downgrade or remove piracy sites from the results it serves up to users.
Today, British music body the BPI has gone on the attack again, having just sent its 50 millionth takedown notice to Google. That’s based on figures from Google’s own Transparency Report, which shows the BPI as the top reporting organisation, ahead of rights body Degban (47.7m takedown notices) and the RIAA (36m).
The BPI says that 44.1m of its takedowns have been sent in 2013 alone, and claims it’s now battering against the 250,000 daily limit that Google operates for such requests. BPI boss Geoff Taylor hasn’t ever been one to mince his words regarding Google, but his rhetoric today was notably stern:
“Google leads consumers into a murky underworld of unlicensed sites, where they may break the law or download malware or inappropriate content, because it persistently ranks such sites above trusted legal services when consumers search for music to download,” said Taylor.
“Google knows full well, from millions of notices and from court decisions, which sites are illegal. Yet it turns a blind eye to that information and chooses to keep on driving traffic and revenues to the online black market, ahead of legal retailers.”
Taylor has also renewed his call for governments and regulators to take more of an interest in Google’s search results. “It’s time for Google to be held to the same standards of behaviour as everyone else. It has enormous power as a gatekeeper to the Internet. If it won’t choose to behave ethically and responsibly, it’s time for Governments and regulators to take action.”
The BPI has also rounded up representatives from other creative-industry bodies to back its latest call up, with Crispin Hunt from the Featured Artists Coalition providing the most entertaining (if entirely serious) view:
“A brilliant new band that I recently worked with has just been dropped by their label because their debut EP sold barely 4,000 copies. Yet the number one site on a Google Search for the same EP boasts of 23,000 illegal downloads…then directs me to an online brothel, next to an advert for Nissan as I rip the tunes. What more do I need to say?”
There is also condemnation from the Musicians’ Union boss John Smith (“Powerful organisations such as Google need to be fair to the individual creators and performers whose rights are being undermined by these illegal websites”) and The Publisher’s Association chief Richard Mollet (“It is hard to imagine any other area in which this blatant mis-direction of consumers would be tolerated. It’s just as if a high street store was routinely and knowingly displaying counterfeit goods alongside genuine ones.”)
Meanwhile, the Motion Picture Association’s EMEA boss Chris Marcich has stressed the European angle: “Search engines must take real action to stop directing consumers to infringing sites. In Europe, search and Google are synonymous. Google has a special responsibility to be more responsible than it is today as to how it instructs its mighty algorithm.”
Will this latest round of sabre-rattling change things? That’s a question for the governments and regulators to answer. It’s worth thinking about the recent history of Google’s responses to such charges, though.
In August 2012, the company announced that it would be downgrading websites that received lots of valid copyright removal notices – this is the reason why the BPI dramatically upped the number of such notices sent in 2012, incidentally.
“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,” wrote Google’s SVP of engineering Amit Singhal at the time.
“Sites with high numbers of removal notices may appear lower in our results. This ranking change should help users find legitimate, quality sources of content more easily—whether it’s a song previewed on NPR’s music website, a TV show on Hulu or new music streamed from Spotify.”
It’s the failure to deliver on this promise – at least in the eyes of the BPI, RIAA and other industry bodies – that’s responsible for the current anger.
Already in November 2012, the BPI was criticising Google on this score: “Google said it would stop putting the worst pirate sites at the top of search results. Google’s transparency report shows they know clearly which are most infringing domains. Yet three months into the much-vaunted algorithm change, many of these illegal sites are still dominating search results for music downloads,” said Geoff Taylor at the time.
In February 2013, the RIAA was lasting Google for reneging on its claims. ”Six months later, we have found no evidence that Google’s policy has had a demonstrable impact on demoting sites with large amounts of piracy. These sites consistently appear at the top of Google’s search results for popular songs or artists,” claimed the RIAA in a statement that month. ”
By September this year, Google was responding with a report – How Google Fights Piracy – providing a three-pronged defence to allegations that Google is a piracy-enabler. That included its own content services like YouTube and Google Play, its role in disabling ad-serving to piracy sites, and its ability to respond to copyright takedown notices for its search engine within six hours, on average.
The report also suggested that “commentators often overlook some important realities” in the discussion around search and piracy, claiming that major search engines account for “less than 16% of traffic to sites like The Pirate Bay”; and that the volume of search queries adding terms like ‘download’ and ‘mp3′ to artist and song titles is much lower than the basic artist/title search (for example, ‘flo rida whistle’ was searched for 30 times more often than ‘flo rida whistle download’).
Movie industry body the MPAA responded with its own report claiming that search engines played a bigger role in directing people to piracy sites – 74% of people surveyed said they’d used a search engine in their first visits to sites with infringing content; while 58% of queries used by consumers before viewing infringing content “contain generic or title-specific keywords only” rather than keywords relating to piracy – while the RIAA suggested in evidence to a US House Judiciary Subcommittee that “search engines may be considered the roadmaps or, more directly, the turn-by-turn directions and door-to-door service to these sites”.
Now it’s the BPI’s turn (again) to attack Google. This pair are working together in other areas – for example, on squeezing advertising revenues for piracy sites – but when it comes to search results, they’re still very much at loggerheads.