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Congress Asks Google: Why Do So Many Searches Go To Pirate Sites?

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For the past year, both houses of Congress have been debating the creation of a law that would allow the government to block websites accused of piracy. In a Congressional hearing a few weeks ago, representatives seemed open to the idea, and a few suggested they might be open to asking search engines like Google (NSDQ: GOOG) to tweak their algorithm to eliminate pirate sites and favor authorized services. Today, Google General Counsel Kent Walker testified before the House committee on Intellectual Property, answering questions from members of Congress who seemed flummoxed that so many sites with pirated content come up in Google search results.

In Walker’s testimony, he said that Google would welcome additional legislation that cut off financial services and advertising support for “rogue” websites. But any legislation should be narrowly tailored and shouldn’t affect the notice-and-takedown system currently in place as part of the DMCA, which is working well, Walker added. Google did have concerns about any new law that might dictate search results, he added.

The committee chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), kicked off the questioning by telling Walker he and his staff had recently done searches for the term “watch movies online,” and was disturbed to find that one of the suggestions from Google’s auto-complete was “watch free bootleg movies online.” That led to “a results page full of infringing links,” said Goodlatte. “Why does Google suggest to users to watch bootleg movies online?”

Walker said the auto-complete results are “a reflection of how many users are trying to seek infringing content.” In any case, the company has already barred some terms from auto-complete that are closely associated with piracy. But for some terms it’s a tough call, because there are lots of legitimate uses as well, Walker noted. “If you put in ‘cheap’ or ‘free’, many of those are appropriate searches. Even ‘faux’ or ‘replica’… there are ‘knockoff’ dresses sold by Macy’s and Nordstrom’s.”

But other representatives sitting on the committee still couldn’t believe that Google, with all its engineering know-how, couldn’t create some kind of algorithm that would demote or eliminate infringing sites.

“It would seem to be feasible that those common search terms that are used to find pirated works on the internet — the results could be filtered out,” said Rep. Ben Quayle, (R-AZ).

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) noted that Google did have success in getting child pornography out of search results and wondered why the same couldn’t be done of copyright infringing material. Walker responded that child pornography is easier to identify with filters, and Google also uses human review. It’s much harder to identify pirated material, since so much legitimate, licensed copyrighted material is also online, Walker said. In those cases, Google needs the help of rightsholders.

Rep. Howard Berman, (D-Calif.) said that the DMCA takedown process just wasn’t working. Even though Google has promised it will get to the point where takedowns happen within 24 hours, “in terms of a newly released movie, being up for 24 hours on a website can be a disaster,” said Berman. “Google has said it will do takedowns within 24 hours-but I do notice that the searches happen within seconds.”

One Congresswoman who really laid into Walker was Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fla.), who said she was concerned that searchers who type in the word “knockoff” come up with suggested search terms like “knockoff uggs” and “knockoff Coach.” She brought it up with Walker back in March, she said, but the problem persists. “As we discussed in my office, knockoff doesn’t really reference anything except trying to steal something that is someone else’s intellectual property,” said Wasserman-Schultz. “Your auto-fill brings up things that are not appropriate, and are facilitiating illegal content and illegal products… You’re Google. You helped overthrow the head of an entire country in a weekend. To suggest that this is too difficult for Google to accomplish… I think it’s more an expression of lack of will.”

Despite all these concerns, it’s hard to imagine legislation would get passed that would actually require Google to alter its search results. But the political heat over Google’s auto-complete in particular suggest that Google might be pressured into making major modifications to that product soon. Even though it’s an automated system, it just looks to people-including key policymakers-like it’s suggestions that are truly coming from Google.

John Morton, Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), testified about his organization’s program to seize websites accused of piracy-and faced tough questioning from one Silicon Valley politician. Morton touted his agency’s new “Operation in Our Sites” initiative, in which it has seized 119 domain names in the past year from sites that featured counterfeit goods, or offered illegal copyrighted content. “American businesses are under assault from counterfeiters and copyright thieves,” said Morton. “This is not a minor risk-it’s a serious risk. A risk calculated in the billions of dollars… We are not out to censor the internet, and we are not out to stifle free speech. We are a law enforcement agency out to stop and deter crime.”

One of very few politicians who has challenged the ICE seizures, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), asked Morton how many of the owners sites he has shut down have actually been arrested. Morton said he’d get back to her. And Lofgren suggested that there should be a check on ICE’s power to unilaterally turn off websites. “Russia used pirated copies of software as an excuse to shut down dissident groups,” Lofgren noted-a fact revealed by an NYT investigation published in September. “There was, in fact, infringement going on, but they used it for political reasons. What do we have in place that would prevent the government from that sort of activity here?”

“We have a wonderful judicial system in this country,” Morton began. “We have a great sense of rule of law-”

But Lofgren cut him off. “Right now, this is an ex parte communication. You go to a magistrate, you say what you think-there’s nobody on the other side saying what they think. You get the order… you take it down. What constraint is there on you?”

Morton: “I have to demonstrate there is probable cause. The day we do [the seizure], you can walk into court and challenge that procedure, immediately.”

At that point, time was up; Lofgren told Morton she had “about five more pages of questions for you,” and will deliver them in writing.

Other witnesses who testified included Christine Jones of Go Daddy, and First Amendment expert Floyd Abrams. Jones basically complained that other internet companies don’t do as great a job as hers does of stopping infringing sites, and at times seem to allude to the fact that Google could do more-without quite saying it. For his part, Abrams spoke little, essentially chiming in that there’s no First Amendment problem with taking down sites that feature overwhelmingly infringing content.

13 Responses to “Congress Asks Google: Why Do So Many Searches Go To Pirate Sites?”

  1. There is another, perhaps more significant issue with regard to Google and piracy. Look no further than the Google AdSense ads that are, unfortunately, ubiquitous on pirate sites throughout the web. By allowing pirate websites to utilize AdSense accounts to monetize theft, Google not only encourages piracy, but sustains it. At the same time Google actually profits from piracy as well. Pirates steal content, post it along side ads and earn money with no-risk and the potential for much reward. Congress should start looking at this issue more closely. Google and other (legit) companies should be held accountable for their indirect and implicit contribution to the business of piracy on the web. What’s particularly galling is that even when a website is reported to Google as being a site that offers pirated films, they refuse to terminate the AdSense account. Why? Because it’s in their financial best interest not to do so.

    • McDonaldSr

      Your point is the stuff of a great class action lawsuit.  I hope someone sues the shit out of Google and YouTube.  They are completely complicit in the piracy scam.
      The morons who are confusing with this the first amendment need to READ the first amendment.  Censorship is when you censor someone’s point of view not when you stop someone from illegally distributing copyright protected software, movies, music.  

  2. I wrote a short piece about my experiences with Google’s embrace of torrent sites several years ago and nothing has changed. If you search for my book titles with the word “download”, Google comes back with plenty of torrent links. I suppose it’s better because Amazon shows up a bit higher on the list, but the torrent links are there.

    Google doesn’t even need to hire human filters to identify the handful of sites that are just torrent mills. I can imagine a few algorithms that would do a pretty good job. Not perfect but good enough to get them off the hook for being an accessory. But I don’t think they can make the philosophical leap to actually nurturing the people who create the content that draws the people to look at the ads that they sell.

  3. Google shouldn’t have to fix this. That is not Google’s job. Google is not breaking any ethical or written laws. Well at least as far as this is concerned. I can google “how to steal a car” and get websites telling me how, but Google isn’t responsible for the content on those sites. If google removes it, then the piraters will just one of the other 50 search engines available.

    • Sorry but I disagree. I see this as very sleezy and unethical but I admit it’s a bit hard to create a bright line rule that distinguishes between legit linking and becoming an accessory to piracy. While I understand your point about the need for free discussion about car theft, I think that it’s just outright wrong to show so many torrent links in searches that are just looking for downloads. It’s like the difference between a trashy outfit and a nice outfit. It may just be an extra centimeter of fabric, but most people can agree on the difference. Maybe one of these days Google will find some sympathy for the content creators.

  4. This is censorship at its best. Way to keep on top of the important issues congress. Ignore that useless stuff like libya, immigration, jobs, energy, and those little piddly things. Google’s results have nothing to do with google, it has to do with what we americans are looking for. Stop doing the RIAA and MPAA’s work for them,

    • Joey Cantrell

      More stupid liberal democrat Phuks wanting more government control of everything. Next they will want a count of everybody’s testicles.. Gotta love the Libs always making things worse for the American people. Union’s and Liberals are scum of the earth..

    • Censorship is when the government stops someone from expressing their own voice. It’s not censorship when they stop you from repeating someone else’s voice. If anything, the government is forcing you to write the words yourself.

      The irony is that the torrent sites act like censors when they erode the businesses of real creators. It’s not censorship by the jackbook of totalitarianism but a death by a thousand cuts.

  5. DavidS

    @Mike, that’s a bit ridiculous. It would be pretty easy for anyone to circumvent an arbitrary set of blacklisted domains by simply moving the content to a domain that has not been blacklisted. No number of human workers or algorithms written by humans could keep up – it’s the equivalent of asymmetrical warfare.

    Besides, it looks to me like “authorized services” as referenced above implies that only those services provided by those corporations with sufficient financial investment in members of Congress should show up in Google’s search results. What if freedom of speech ceases to become “authorized?”

    I think most people see through this game pretty clearly. The industry needs to stop lobbying and start innovating.

    • @DavidS I could understand your point if there were different websites and randomly generated names popping up on searches every day but I see the same names, some might even call them brands participating in piracy on a regular basis. If your theory were true there would be nothing safe from piracy but I’ve searched for items that were successfully (at least for the short term) difficult to obtain so although I agree if someone is hellbent on providing the service they can always find a way…my point is that we are not even making it difficult for them. At the very least we should offer a billion dollar reward for some young genius to create a system or algorithm to minimize piracy. People act like it is impossible and although I’m not a tech guy and would guess that it extremely difficult to achieve…if you give people enough incentive I’m sure they could come with a lot better system for protection than currently exists… and the result would be an overnight revitalization of our economy

  6. It’s just disingenuous of Google to claim that they can’t fix this. If they hired 10 human workers at 50k a year, that half million dollars would save a hundred times that in intellectual property theft. Only five big movies get released each week…how hard would it be to assign one of those workers just to work on those five titles for the week? That alone would save millions if not billions. If Google somehow cried poor and claimed they couldn’t afford to hire those ten workers…the government or the movie industry could offer to subsidize those workers as they would more than pay for their salaries. The only reason why this won’t happen is because they are afraid they will lose an enormous number of hits…Google is a parasite that is the biggest pirate of all.

    • Knowles2

      But why should Google spend the money. An why should Google protect only the “Big movies” when it really the smaller ones that suffer the most, but that only in revenue at least they seen, what make these big movies so special.
      Also how do you remove individual movies from a site you do not own. An what happens when Google prove they can do it for movies, will people will then demand they do it for music, books, information the government do not want you know such as WikiLeaks . Celebrity gossip, for in the UK there such a thing as super injunctions which celebrities have been taking out that block news services reporting certain news about them will super injunctions now apply to Google, yes I know this does not have anything to do with America for now but it a good question to be ask, and before Google know its will be policing the entire internet and all content on the net, something which is suppose to be a government job after all.

      If the Movies industry wants to police the internet they should do it themselves, If the music Industry wants to police the internet they should do it themselves. If Congress wants to police the internet they should do it themselves. It is not and should not be Google job.

      • The same laws protect the big and the little movies. If you want to protect the little movies, it won’t help to let people pirate the big ones.

        And I think the content industry is more than happy to police this themselves, but they run into a brick wall of sophistry from the tech community whenever they try. Google and the other tech companies could make the DMCA rules much easier and enforce them instead of resisting them.

        It still boggles my mind that tenured law professors are arguing that there’s a difference between posting a file on a file sharing network and actually making an illicit copy. But that’s what you get from the computer people who see only bytes, not the hard work and human toil that went into the content being pirated.