Google’s role in online piracy drew headlines recently when News Corps Chief Executive Robert Thomson wrote a letter to European Commissioner for Competition Joaquín Almunia asking that the agency reconsider Google’s February tentative settlement with European Commission to avoid anti-trust charges over its search practices. In it he criticized Google for its stranglehold over online search and its role as a “platform for piracy.”
The shining vision of Google’s founders has been replaced by a cynical management, which offers advertisers impressively precise data about users and content usage, but has been a platform for piracy and the spread of malicious networks, all while driving more traffic and online advertising dollars to Google. A company that boasts about its ability to track traffic chooses to ignore the unlawful and unsavoury content that surfaces after the simplest of searches. Google has been remarkably successful in its ability to monetize users, but has not shown the willingness, even though it clearly has the ability, to respect fundamental property rights.
In snide response, Google posted its own “Letter to Rupert” (a reference to News Corp’s own controversial and bombastic owner, Rupert Murdoch) on its European policy blog. Rachel Whetstone of SVP Global Communications penned the letter on behalf of Google to rebut Thomson’s charges point by point. Her first salvo is unintentionally ironic:
Access to information in any given country, particularly news content, used to be controlled by a relatively small number of media organizations. Today, people have far greater choice. That has had a profound impact on newspapers, who face much stiffer competition for people’s attention and for advertising Euros.
It seems that in Ms. Whetstone’s view, monopolies are a bad thing if we’re talking about the media, but OK if we’re talking about Google? As Jack Smith writes in a piece for betabeat.com, “Why Google’s Reaction to the News Corp Letter Should Terrify the News Industry:”
But when we think of the news ecosystem, we often forget the one organization to rule them all: Google.
Google is, after all, the master aggregator, curating a list of searchable content — relatively none of which is their own — and making money by putting ads against it.
Predictably Ms. Whetstone also dredges up tired Google talking points to defend the company against charges that it’s a “platform” for piracy:
Google is a “platform for piracy and the spread of malicious networks” and “a company that boasts about its ability to track traffic [but] chooses to ignore the unlawful and unsavoury content that surfaces after the simplest of searches”
Google has done more than almost any other company to help tackle online piracy.
- Search: In 2013 we removed 222 million web pages from Google Search due to copyright infringement. The average take-down time is now just six hours. And we downgrade websites that regularly violate copyright in our search rankings.
- Video: We’ve invested tens of millions of dollars in innovative technology — called ContentID — to tackle piracy on YouTube.
What’s conveniently missing from Ms. Whetstone’s response is the acknowledgement that the only reason Google does “more” to tackle piracy is actually due its own bad business practices.
She trumpets the fact Google removed 222 million pages from its search results. Shouldn’t she be asking why there are 222 million pages worthy of removal in the first place? Instead of crowing about how many DMCA notices Google responds to each month, why aren’t its engineers be tweaking algorithms to reduce the number of poison links that appear in the first place? Talk about trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
The fact is that Google does “more than almost any other company” to enable and encourage (and profit from) online piracy. For Google it all comes down to simple math. Removing millions links to infringing and illegal content is more profitable than blocking them in the first place.
The massive takedown numbers Google brags about are the result of its failures, not leadership.
As Thomson’s points out:
The company [Google] has evolved from a wonderfully feisty, creative Silicon Valley startup to a vast, powerful, often unaccountable bureaucracy, which is sometimes contemptuous of intellectual property and routinely configures its search results in a manner that is far from objective.
It would appear that News Corp’s letter, along with blowback from other European stake-holders has resulted in the collapse of the proposed settlement . This is a good thing. As Jack Smith notes in beatabeat.com:
Mr. Thomson’s complaint against Google is actually pretty typical of what critics and the tech media have been saying for years: as users begin to move toward social and search for their news, those platforms gain an enormous level of control over what we see, and we have no way of holding them accountable.
One more thing I’d like to point out about Ms. Whetstone’s letter. As evidence to bolster her claim the Google is a leader in the fight against online piracy she links to piece of propaganda the company published in the form of the report, “How Google Fights Piracy.”
I wrote a point by point rebuttal when this so-called “report” was issued last September and thought it worthwhile to repost here as a reminder that Google’s rhetoric about fighting piracy is based on platitudes, not performance.
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Claiming to be a “leader” in the fight against piracy is Google’s first mistake
This past week Google issued a report, “How Google Fights Piracy,” in which the tech giant attempts to explain what a great job it’s doing leading battle against online piracy. After reading it I think a more accurate title would be “Why Google Shouldn’t Have to Fight Piracy Because it Offers so Much Other Good Stuff.”
While the report does outline various positive steps Google’s taken (under duress) to mitigate its role in incentivizing and enabling piracy, most of the document reads more like an evangelical tome as to how their innovations have benefited content creators, blunting any collateral damage that may have occurred. In other words, let’s overlook the bad in favor of the good…
On a personal note, one line I found particularly galling was: “Google is a leader in rooting out and ejecting rogue sites from our advertising and payment services, and is raising standards across the industry.” The claim that Google has been a “leader” in any way in the fight against online piracy is chutzpah at its best. A more accurate characterization would be that–after years of obfuscation and inaction–Google’s finally taking (some) action. Never mind that such efforts are long overdue and may never have happened had their nefarious business model (profiting off content theft) not been exposed to the light of day.
In an effort to burnish their tarnished image, the authors resort to repeating well-worn and disingenuous Google-spawned memes (which I’ve repeatedly deconstructed on this blog). These include:
- YouTube makes money for artists so there’s no need to provide a transparent accounting.
- DMCA abuse is a considerable problem.
- Search is “not a major driver of traffic to pirate sites.”
- Google is committed to “rooting out and ejecting rogue sites” from AdSense.
- Google quickly and efficiently terminates Blogger websites that feature pirated content.
I would counter that Google should be doing much more, including:
- Offer complete transparency with its YouTube content monetization accounting. It shouldn’t be opaque. Provide content owners with an accounting breakdown for each and every piece of claimed content. Reveal precisely how much Google makes monetizing the work of others? Employ more safeguards to prevent pirates from using YouTube as a stepping-stone to infringing content and do more to prevent bogus claims that allow criminal users to earn money by uploading content they do not own.
- Stop claiming that Google search isn’t an important link to pirated content and review and remove sites that are in the business of trafficking in pirated content. Allow others into the mysterious “Trusted Copyright Removal Program for Web Search (TCRP).” After al, it’s those with the fewest resources (like independent filmmakers and musicians) that have the least access to takedown resources and could benefit the most from access to a such a (supposedly) streamlined process.
- Offer more transparency as to where AdSense revenues come from and what sites have had accounts disabled.
- Quickly remove Blogger websites have been reported (and verified) for trafficking in pirated content.
Google’s report begins with a warm and fuzzy anecdote about the previously unknown Korean K-pop “artist” Psy whose viral video “Gangnam Style” became an online sensation and generated more than 8 million dollars in ad “deals” in addition to having been purchased “digitally millions of times.” According to a footnote, the figures quoted come from an article in New York Magazine, “Gangnam-Buster Profits,” It’s worth noting that along with Psy’s profits, Google’s bank account did pretty well too:
Number of YouTube views of the “Gangnam Style” video (as of 1 p.m., November 30): 853,942,076
Standard rate YouTube pays to video owners for every 1,000 views: $2
Estimated total YouTube revenue received by Team Psy: $1,707,884.15
YouTube’s estimated cut: $1,366,307.32
(Based on rates provided by Jason Calacanis, CEO of Mahalo, a top YouTube partner.)
I’m not sure what the report authors meant when they wrote “8 million dollars in ad deals” as there’s no documentation to back that claim up…perhaps they were confused and mixed up deals with YouTube “views?” Even though the actual figures quoted are at best guesses, there’s no denying that the video was a YouTube sensation and made mega-bucks for both the artist and Google–but so what? What does that really have to do with explaining Google’s anti-piracy efforts? The answer is nothing.
The tale of this outlier merely seems designed to deflect attention (and disgust) away from Google’s long-standing role in promoting, and profiting from, content theft. No one’s saying that YouTube doesn’t offer opportunity to content creators–but with opportunity comes responsibility–and that’s where Google still has far to go.
I’ve written previously about the positive aspects of YouTube Content ID and monetization, but there remains that nagging question Google fails to address–transparency. As demonstrated by our dependence on “guesstimates” to calculate the Gangnam Style video’s possible profits, why does Google still refuse to offer content owners specific information about how much money is being made from their work?
Sure, content owners can see how much they earn, but how much does Google take off the top? How much is earned per view, etc? Such basic information has never been made clear. Nor are breakdowns offered when there are multiple claimants on a video (i.e. movie mash-up with music from another artist). Why does Google refuse to offer a “transparent” accounting breakdown of just how much everyone makes off advertising on claimed content? What’s there to hide?
Also, try as they might to focus on the positives, YouTube is also still a conduit for illegal activity. Not only does the site provide online pirates with a convenient means to advertise their illegal download links (on other sites) but it also allows thieves (content leeches) to earn income by monetizing bogus claims.
Why doesn’t Google do more on this front? Simple answer, monetized uploads make them money. Who cares what the uploaded file actually is and who owns it (never mind the advertisers being ripped off paying for adjacent ads). Google/YouTube pays these parasitic pirates and pockets more profit for themselves.
When it comes to reporting on the role Google’s search engine plays in promoting piracy, the report report borrows heavily from the recent (Google-funded) study that alleges “search engines are not a major tool in the infringer’s toolbox.” Both that study and this report concluded that better SEO optimization on the part of content creators is all that’s required to fix the problem. Given Google’s report merely repeats talking points from the CCIA repeating part of my response seems appropriate:
Sorry, but I read the entire paper and found no evidence to support this. Sure, lots of downloaders bypass search because they are experienced downloaders and know how to go to Pirate Bay or Filestube to find what they’re looking for, but where did they get their start? Perhaps it’s better to think of search engines like Google as a “gateway” to finding pirated content online.
Google search leads to illegal downloads, counterfeit products, illegal pharmacies and more. Clearly the search giant can de-list sites engaged in unlawful behavior (like child pornography) but rather than do so in this case, its proxy (the CIAA) gins up headlines to muddy the waters, deflect and obfuscate the real issues at play.
If Google were a brick and mortar mall featuring stores selling bootleg DVDs authorities would step in a force them to shut down the illegal enterprises, but when it comes to the online world the “tech” industry’s constant refrain is that the need to “innovate” trumps the need to do what’s right. Yet this debate isn’t really about protecting innovation, that’s simply tech-speak for protecting the industry’s bottom line (at the expense of those other innovators, content creators).
Since Google deems search to “not be a major driver of traffic to pirate sites” one wonders why in the same breath, the company touts how efficiently it responds to the 4 million weekly requests it receives in a report on its efforts to fight piracy?
…today we receive removal requests for more URLs every week than we did in the twelve years from 1998 to 2010 combined. At the same time, Google is processing the notices we receive for Search faster than ever before—currently, on average, in less than six hours.
Google has a strong track record of developing solutions that scale efficiently. The trend line is striking—from more than three million pages for all of 2011 to more than 4 million pages per week today. As the numbers continue to swell, it becomes both more difficult and more important to detect and pick out the abusive [emphasis added] and erroneous removal notices.
This so-called DMCA “abuse” is another tired red herring. Google routinely employs to deflect attention from the 4 million pages per week of mostly legitimate ones. Given the huge volume of takedown requests Google receives it’s no surprise there are errors, but the collective “damage” done by mistaken DMCA notices does not begin to compare to the damage piracy has on content creators. However, Google would like us to believe otherwise. As I wrote in an earlier post:
Piracy apologists like to focus on erroneous takedowns and highlight stories whereby a 9 year-old in Finland had her computer confiscated, or a grandmother in Colorado had her ISP account wrongfully suspended. Certainly mistakes happen, and when they do it’s unfortunate, but they are few and far between when compared with the cumulative harm being done to those whose livelihoods are damaged by rampant online theft. For every search result removed in error there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, removed for valid reasons. Sensationalistic anecdotes make for splashy headlines and provide convenient red herrings for those who defend the piracy status quo–big bad Hollywood versus the grandmothers of the world–but meanwhile the genuine stories documenting piracy’s ruin are routinely minimized or ignored.
Also lost in this debate is the fact that if one takes the time to read the DMCA, it’s easy to see that the law actually favors the reported party, not the other way around. If a site has been removed in error, the owner can use the Google website to file a counter-claim with a click of a mouse. That immediately puts the onus on the party that filed the original DMCA request to go to court and prove the legitimacy of their claim. If that next step isn’t taken, the takedown becomes moot. Filing a court case is a costly endeavor so it’s unlikely that those whose file false DMCA claims, whether in error or purposely, would bother to spend money to enforce a bogus DMCA. Conversely, those content creators who don’t have deep pockets have little recourse when it comes to enforcing a valid DMCA takedown if the other party, representing an infringing (pirate) website, chooses to file a counter-claim.
Chilling the rights of creators who attempt to protect their work from theft
Demonstrating a (selective) dedication to transparency and warning hat DMCA abuse can be a “pretext for censorship,” Google touts the fact that copies of all DMCA notices received are posted on ChillingEffects.org, an online “clearinghouse” operated by a various legal clinics that depend heavily on Google donations for financial support.
According to their website, “Chilling Effects aims to support lawful online activity against the chill of unwarranted legal threats,” but it appears they’re not too interested in the threat that illegal content theft has on the livelihoods of musicians, filmmakers, authors, etc. From the beginning, Google’s posting of DMCA notices on Chilling Effects seems designed to intimidate those whose rights are being trampled upon. In this scenario the only thing being “chilled” is the right of content creators to protect their work from theft in order to make a living.
Google also claims to lower the rankings of sites that are repeatedly reported for content theft (another questionable claim), but justifies the fact it refuses to remove such sites, like the notorious Pirate Bay, entirely.
While we use the number of valid copyright removal notices as a signal for ranking purposes, we do not remove pages from results unless we receive a specific removal request for the page. As shown on the Transparency Report, we generally receive removal notices for a very small portion of the pages on a site. Even for the websites that have received the highest numbers of notices, the number of noticed pages is typically only a tiny fraction of the total number of pages on the site. It would be inappropriate to remove entire sites under these circumstances.
I should add here that when I checked today and did a search for the movie ” a ‘Perfect Ending’ download” the second result (after a paid Netflix link) was none other than a torrent on the Pirate Bay. So much for re-ranking pirate sites eh?
Why is it inappropriate to remove a site that routinely engages in illegal activity? If a brick and mortar store’s merchandise routinely includes stolen goods it would be put out of business. Why does Google hold sites like Pirate Bay in such high regard? Does every single infringing torrent on Pirate Bay have to reported for Google to consider blocking it? Is there a tipping point, ever?
I could only shake my head when I read that Google claims to be the industry leader when it comes to “following the money.” When I first began blogging about the link between online piracy and profit when my film was released in 2010, Google wouldn’t even admit there was a problem. Finally, after having a spotlight shined on their dubious sources of profit, Google has been forced to take action–but a leader they ain’t.
Despite the claim that “Google does not want to be in business with rogue sites specializing in piracy” they’ve yet to provide any documentation to support it. One nugget in the report noted, “…we find that AdSense ads appear on far fewer than 1% of the pages that copyright owners identify in copyright removal notices for Search.” Does this mean that Google is screening the reported pages for AdSense accounts before removing the link from its search engine? If so, in the name of “transparency” it would be great to see these results documented. Speaking of “transparency,” how about letting us “follow the money” to Google’s own bank account. Just how much money has Google made off advertising on rogue sites over the years?
In my experience with AdSense links were often removed while the site (and its AdSense ads) on other illegal downloads remained active, but looking around the web it does seem that fewer AdSense sponsored ads appear on pirate websites. I’m thankful some progress appears to have been made, but for Google to infer that it acted willingly to clean up its dirty laundry and has become leader in the battle against ad-sponsored piracy is just absurd.
Last but not least we come to Google’s Blogger hosted websites, a go-to (free) platform favored by web pirates around the world. According to the report, Google’s efforts to keep the Blogger platform pirate-free should earn the company another feather in its cap.
Blogger is Google’s free blog publishing platform, which enables users to create and update blogs. We remain vigilant against use of the Blogger platform by pirates looking to set up a free website. Consistent with other Google products that host user-uploaded content, we will remove infringing blog posts when properly notified by a copyright owner, and will terminate the entire blog where multiple complaints establish it as a repeat infringer.
Blogger has also created an automated bulk submission tool for copyright owners who have a track record of reliable submissions and a regular need to submit large volumes of takedown notices. This tool allows qualified copyright owners to obtain rapid removals of infringing posts appearing on Blogger.
Sounds good, but as I’ve written many times previously on this blog, the truth with regard to Blogger-hosted websites is not so rosy. Also, to be honest, Google’s “automated” bulk submission tool is a time-consuming pain. Why not give content creators a Copyright Management Account that allows for bulk reporting of Blogger sites and search links? Why should continually have to fill out my name, company, email, etc. each and every time I have more blogger sites and pirate search links to report? Actually sending an email to Google would be much faster but that’s not allowed. Ironic that the now defunct Megaupload made it easier to send DMCA notices than Google does…
More significant is the fact that, in my experience, the word “rapid” should not be part of Google’s lexicon when it comes to targeting piracy on Blogger sites. Despite repeated reports of piracy and obvious and repeated copyright infringement, many Blogger pirate sites remain online. I will be posting a follow-up on this subject soon.
There’s no doubt that Google has revolutionized the online world in a variety of positive ways but when it comes to its role fertilizing online piracy, the company has been spinning and deflecting its way through the a minefield for the better part of a decade. Thanks to outside pressure the situation has finally begun to improve, but there’s still much to be done before Google can rightfully claim to be a leader in the fight against online piracy.