Today, Google expanded its transparency reports program today by releasing a detailed report of content removal requests from copyright holders. The new copyright report joins its semi-annual government takedown transparency report, and covers more than 95% of the copyright takedown requests it has received for Search results since July 2011.1 Though Google has posted the content of takedown requests to Chilling Effects where possible before, this report presents the data collectively (and graphically) for the first time.

Striking is the sheer volume of takedown notices Google receives: in just the last month, it processed over 1.2 million requests for Search alone, from 1,296 copyright owners and 1,087 reporting organizations. That scale allows it to present trends in the data that might not otherwise be apparent. For example, even in the case of notorious "pirate" sites like The Pirate Bay, Google has received takedown notices for less than 5% of their indexable pages.

On the other hand, this report also provides a clearer look into the abuse of copyright tools. Google explains that it's complied with 97% of takedown requests received between July and December of 2011, but also provides examples of obviously invalid copyright requests it's received. Those examples range from cases of negligent over-application, such as movie studios who have attempted to remove IMDB entries or links to legitimate trailers for their movies, to clear attempts at censorship, such as businesses who have issued takedown requests for employee accounts of unfair treatment. Of course, there are even more ridiculous examples: the report describes a reporting company sending a takedown notice for links to earlier takedown notices that obviously did not infringe.

This transparency report gives Google a chance to highlight some of its good citizenship as an online service provider. Although the burden of liability is supposed to be on the organization that sends the takedown notice — it is required to claim under penalty of perjury to have a good-faith belief of copyright infringement — in practice many groups are willing to skirt those rules, sending takedown notices to silence unfavorable speech or even without human review. The 3% of takedown notices that Google chooses not to comply with is a large absolute number, and each of those are instances of legitimate speech that would have otherwise been shut down. Google deserves to be commended for that behavior.

Given its importance as a starting point for many users, removal from Google's index can have devastating consequences on speech. Google has done the right thing by pushing back on bogus takedown notices, both by reviewing and rejecting those requests the first time, and by publishing real data about the behavior of copyright holders and reporting organizations. As with the government transparency reports, reporting on copyright notices can expose bad practices and allow people to assign blame where it belongs: with the people abusing the system. We hope this is just the beginning: Google should extend the program out to their other properties like YouTube and Blogger, and other online service providers should follow suit.

  • 1. It doesn't cover requests for non-Search Google products, such as YouTube or Blogger. We hope these services are on the roadmap for the future.

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