Tuesday 27 November 2012

What is going on with Google’s takedown requests?

Iggle Piggle: The new boss of the Pirate Bay?

I know I promised to take a break from Microsoft blog posts, but here’s a third one in a row. Not Windows 8 this time; it's about how Microsoft has got itself in the news for the wrong reasons. It’s been spotted that Microsoft has been sending automated copyright infringement notices to Google claiming that its copyrighted material is being infringed by sites such as, err … the BBC and its well-known hotbed of online piracy, CBeebies. The BBC was unaffected as it’s on a Google whitelist, but other sites weren’t so lucky, including perfectly reputable sites such as AMC Theatres and RealClearPolitics.

First of all, embarrassing though this is for Microsoft, it’s not fair to single them out. Their only crime is getting caught. The majority of copyright enforcement comes from the big film and record labels. As I’ve previously written, wanting to protect their material is reasonable, but their record of heavy-handedness isn’t. Although Microsoft has been criticised for collusion with the record companies, on this issue of dodgy automated takedown requests, I imagine the record companies are doing the same, if not more.

The root problem is that online piracy and copyright is a horribly complicated issue, and it doesn’t help that rules designed to be fair are being abused on both sides. I’ve looked at Google’s information on takedown requests and it seems fair and even-handed, so what’s going wrong? To consider this, let’s go back to the beginning.

First of all: something has to be done. I don’t want to go repeat my arguments, but the short answer is: i) films and music can’t be made for free, and ii) the pirates forfeited any moral high ground when they started raking in huge profits. But, as we all know, with the pirates swift to place material on foreign servers out of reach of the law, and to move on every time a takedown writ is issued, lawsuits alone doesn’t do the job. So attention turns (in part) to making it harder to find the stuff in the first place; the idea being that if it takes effort to pirate your new favourite single, you might decide that paying 99 whole pennies for a legal download might not be such a bad option after all. One obvious thing you can do is stop illegal downloads showing up in Google search results. No grounds for the pirates to complain – it’s not Google’s job to make life easier for them. So far, I have no objections. And then things start to get messy.

There are two snags: firstly, Google is an automated service covering gazillions of websites, and it is simply not practical for the staff at Google to fully investigate every claim. Secondly, a lot of copyright holders have been getting greedy and claiming copyright over things that aren’t theirs. It’s not just the film and record companies who are guilty of this; film studios have tried to get unfavourable reviews hidden, businesses have tried to get rival companies blocked from Google, employers have tried to get critical employees’ blogs delisted. Google claims to be refusing these requests, but these were easy because the copyright grounds were blatantly frivolous. One must wonder how many borderline cases are getting pushed through by the side with the bigger legal team.

But, this worry aside, Google makes a good attempt to come up with a fair copyright policy. If you want to claim copyright over some else’s web content, you have to back it up with an affirmation that this is true to the best of your knowledge. If you’re found to be lying, you might face criminal charges. Google, in turn, informs webmasters of alleged copyright infringements and give them a chance to state their case. Again, if you lie when making a counter-claim, you can also go to court. This seems fair enough – reporter or defendant, if you are in the right you shouldn’t mind making yourself answerable to the law. That ought to weed out most pirates without giving copyright claimants undue power – or so one would think.

In the last few months, things have suddenly changed. There has been an explosion of takedown requests, now seven times what it was in June. How has this happened? It’s not like there’s been a sudden surge in pirated material, so I can only assume it’s a surge in copyright claims. So presumably lots of companies, not just Microsoft, have started sending automated notices of copyright infringements to Google. To some extent, you can argue it is necessary to do this in order to keep you with pirates repeatedly re-uploading the same material. But as the recent debacle with Microsoft and CBeebies shows, these automated requests can get it badly wrong.

The current consensus seems to be that it’s all Microsoft’s fault and not Google’s, with Google apparently only doing what it legally had to do. I don’t quite agree. Google has to take its share of responsibility. It’s one thing taking the word of a human who stands to go to court if found to be lying; it’s another thing to take the word of a computer. Neither Microsoft nor any other company should have “computers errors” as an excuse for false copyright accusations with impunity, and it’s up to Google to put their foot down. If I was in charge of Google, I would think twice about accepting automated reports; at the very least, Google should only be allowing it if Microsoft and everyone else can demonstrate they’re taking steps to stop false positives. Few people would argue that Google search results alone is going to stop piracy – the most it can hope to achieve to persuade some casual pirates that legal downloads are easier – but it would be a stupid own goal if the moves to stop piracy is derailed by a faulty computer program.

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