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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

It Ain't Easy Being Google

Posted By on Tue, Aug 14, 2012 at 11:50 AM

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As the dominant search engine, Google inevitably finds itself in the position of deciding for the world which information is important and which information is less so. Just as inevitably, this leads to controversy, and tough choices being forced on the Internet's dominant search engine.

The latest case: Google has decided that it will ratchet down search results for sites that have received a lot of takedown notices -- demands that unauthorized copyrighted material be removed. Such notices lie at the heart of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. The more such valid notices a site receives, the lower that site will go in Google's rankings.

Which, on the face of it, is great, including for at least some, and probably most, users. If you've ever tried to find a song, a video clip, a TV show, or a movie through Google, you've probably noticed that crappy, skeevy pirate sites often dominate the top of results. Until you've become familiar with the URLs of pirate sites (and yes, they're pirate sites, despite claims to the contrary by piracy apologists), you end up clicking on misleadingly labeled links, believing there will be a stream or simple download on the page. Then you find that it's a torrent site you have to join. And sometimes, the thing you were looking for isn't even available -- the title was used to draw you in.

Pure sleaze, and good riddance.

Of course, for people specifically looking for pirated copies of stuff, this will be a hassle. But screw them anyway, right?

Sadly, it's not so simple. There are downsides to this move. Mike Masnick, the copyright-skeptical editor of TechDirt, offers seven of them, but only a couple are really legit. (Most of the rest are just "copyright sucks" declamations.)

For one thing, as Masnick notes, Google's own YouTube in its early days was the target of many DMCA takedown notices. If Google had tweaked its algorithm this way back then, YouTube might never have taken off, and Google might never have purchased it. And then we might not have anything like the wonder and the horror that is YouTube. So, who knows what other kinds of innovative sites this might hurt -- sites that might start out as bigtime copyright infringers, but that eventually develop into the next YouTube? It could be that that's just the price we pay for better search results, and the argument could be made that no site should rely on copyright infringement, even if it eventually develops into something else. But the fact remains that infringement can, in fact, lead to true innovation.

For another thing, this doesn't help Google's strained efforts to appear to be a simple guide to the web, offering results without fear or favor, based on what its users want. Masnick characterizes this move as Google "caving" to the media industry (an industry that, unsurprisingly, says it's not good enough). And that's likely at least partly true, though Google can legitimately claim that the move is in the best interests of most of its users. But it's still a problem for Google because the company is facing antitrust scrutiny. If it's seen as favoring industries by steering traffic away from some sites and toward others, that won't help its case.

Such issues will likely only grow more nettlesome as various interests try to get Google to tweak its algorithm for their own benefit. And the more Google does it, the more those interests will try to get the company to do it again.

Dan Mitchell has written for Fortune, the New York Times, Slate, Wired, National Public Radio, the Chicago Tribune, and many others.

Follow us on Twitter at @TheSnitchSF and @SFWeekly

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Dan Mitchell


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