People, by and large, will do the thing that’s easiest and most convenient to do. In 1999, the easiest way to get digital music was to log onto Napster and leave it running overnight, and so an era of widely-distributed internet piracy was born. These days, it’s pretty easy to access legal digital goods, so more people do that — but piracy still lurks around the edge. So how to quash it?
Well, that’s not so hard, according to Google: make it slightly less convenient to find, and most people won’t bother going to find it.
Some people are dedicated media pirates, it’s true, but that’s a pretty small population. Most folks are just looking for a movie, song, TV show, or video game in the moment, and may not care so much how they get it. So they do what most of us do when we want to know more about something: they go to Google and type in the name of the thing they want.
And that’s where Google’s anti-piracy efforts come in, the company explains in a new report (PDF). At 60+ pages it’s a bit of dense reading, but the gist is this: in addition to of course everything YouTube does around copyright, Google search itself makes piracy less attractive by simply making it harder to find.
Google, the report explains, takes “significant efforts” to prevent piracy sites from appearing in search results — and then promotes legitimate ones.
So if you search, for example, for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” Google will intentionally not display any results from sites its algorithms have identified as high-piracy. And it will promote not only the film’s official site, IMDB page, and news articles about the movie, but also make sure that any links to the movie that do appear on the front page of results will be legitimate places to purchase the movie or related items.
Google is actually fairly transparent about the process. If you run the search for yourself, you see this message about removed results at the bottom of the page:
Clicking through takes you to a description of the DMCA claims made and the list of links considered infringing. And although sometimes these automated lists are both wrong and foolish, it doesn’t take a highly-trained eye to realize that most of the links in this particular list, which include “torrent” and “pirate” in their URLs, are probably exactly what they sound like.
Film and TV companies are always asking Google to do more, but Google says that this demotion approach is surprisingly effective. When it started the demotion algorithm in 2014, a noted torrent site acknowledged its search traffic had dropped by 50%. In May of this year, Google found that piracy sites were losing an average of 89% of their Google search traffic.
However, ranking and removal are not the same thing. Google says that although it uses the number of valid copyright claims made against a site as a ranking signal (more of them = demotion), “we do not remove pages from results unless we receive a specific removal request for the page.” In other words, if you did long enough and deep enough through search results, you’ll probably still come across a pirate site for some material.
Also in “making it harder,” Google won’t do your dirty work for you. Millions of users rely on autocomplete every day to make their searches faster, but not all terms are going to get filled in for you: piracy-related terms appear in neither autocomplete nor “related searches,” Google explains. If you want to type “torrent,” you’re going to have to know the word you want and type it all yourself.
Google, however, is hesitant to go farther to block piracy, becauase it’s not the company’s business to censor the web, it explains. It will remove certain pages from search results, but not an entire site: “Whole-site removal [from search results] is ineffective and can easily result in the censorship of lawful material.”
“Unfortunately, fabricated copyright infringement allegations can be used as a pretext for censorship and to hinder competition,” the report says. “Google is committed to ensuring that it detects and rejects bogus infringement allegations, such as removals for political or competitive reasons, even as it battles online piracy.”
Google also does not support the takedown and staydown approach to copyright.
But with all that said, Google points out, search isn’t the main driver of piracy anyway. Most people who want to go download a pirated piece of media have a favorite torrent app, a favorite torrent site, or a link they got from someone else. And there’s not a single thing mucking around with search engines will do about that.