Paved with Good Intentions

by Charles Miller on August 11, 2012

Google, today:

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. 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.

Previously, when it received a notice of copyright infringement, Google would remove the specific infringing content from its search results (and leave behind a notice linking to details of the removal). Now, they're extending that policy to down-ranking content from entire websites.

On the face of it, this seems like a pretty good idea. Especially from the point of view of a blogger, it's great that Google will start taking action against the thousands of sites that exist purely to appropriate search-friendly content written by other people in order to boost search rankings and sell advertisements.

Except, that kind of abuse isn't mentioned in Google’s blog post. Instead, Google focuses on the stealing of TV shows (from Hulu), and music (from Spotify and NPR).

Where is the first place you go if you're looking for a particular song, or a particular bit from a TV show or movie? If you're anything like me and pretty much everybody I know, the answer to that question is YouTube.

Obviously, Google receives a metric tonne of takedown requests for YouTube. Presumably Google is not going to give YouTube the Google Death Penalty, because it can honestly say that those takedowns are already dealt with through other avenues. The same goes for any Google-owned site that hosts user-contributed content.

But what about anyone doing user-contributed content who wants to compete with Google? For anyone working in that space, dealing with copyright takedowns are part of the business. Google now have a perfectly legitimate, nay automated reason to down-rank these competitors in its search results.

Imagine a site that is a direct copy of YouTube, owned by some company other than Google. Google will receive a constant stream of takedown notices for that site, and its presumably no-human-intervention-required algorithm will take that into account when ranking that content next to YouTube’s. If the policy is not applied universally, any user-contributed content service attempting to compete with Google will be at an automatic disadvantage in its comparative search ranking.

What’s more, copyright holders will know that sending takedown notices to Google gives them extra leverage against sites publishing user-contributed content, to twist their arms into putting policies into place to restrict publishing and sharing that the copyright holders want, but that are not required by law.

tl;dr: Unless Google makes it clear that it will be applied just as much to their own sites as it does to others, a policy of downranking sites in search results based on copyright notices is dangerously anti-competitive.

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