August 10, 2012 | By Julie Samuels and Mitch Stoltz

Google's Opaque New Policy Lets Rightsholders Dictate Search Results

Earlier this summer, we applauded Google for releasing detailed stats about content removal requests from copyright holders. Now that we know how they are going to use that data, we are less enthusiastic. Today, Google announced that it would use copyright takedown notices made under the DMCA1 as what it calls a "signal” on search results. Specifically, those "signals" will demote certain websites in search results.

We wish we had some more details to illustrate just what that means, but unfortunately the process is pretty opaque. What we know: sites that have a “high number of removal notices” of takedown notices that result in actual takedowns will show up lower in some search results, though they will not be removed. What we don’t know: what is a “high number”? How does Google plan to make these determinations? Oh, and one other thing we do know, one that is particularly troubling: there will be no process or recourse for sites who have been demoted.

In particular, we worry about the false positives problem. For example, we’ve seen the government wrongly target sites that actually have a right to post the allegedly infringing material in question or otherwise legally display content. In short, without details on how Google’s process works, we have no reason to believe they won’t make similar, over-inclusive mistakes, dropping lawful, relevant speech lower in its search results without recourse for the speakers. 

Takedown requests are nothing more than accusations of copyright infringement. No court or other umpire confirms that the accusations are valid (although copyright owners can be liable for bad-faith accusations). Demoting search results – effectively telling the searcher that these are not the websites you’re looking for – based on accusations alone gives copyright owners one more bit of control over what we see, hear, and read.

Of course, Google is not seizing domain names, as the government does. And it’s not removing sites from its search results altogether at copyright owners’ request, as SOPA would have required. To its credit, Google says that it will respect counter-notices, and won’t demote results based on takedowns that are rightfully disputed.  But this is little comfort. Google’s opaque policies not only threaten lawful sites, but they undermine our confidence in its search results.

 

  • 1. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act shields websites against most copyright suits based on material posted by their users, provided that the site takes certain actions, including taking down content when a copyright holder sends a valid request.

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