Amit Singhal, Google's SVP of Engineering, said that starting this week, the company will implement an update in the search algorithms that will place sites related to piracy lower on the list -- a demoting, so to speak. The ranking will be based on the number of valid copyright removal notices Google receives for any given website, and should help Web surfers find legitimate, quality sources of content more easily, pushing Spotify, Hulu and others to the top.
For years copyright owners have demanded that Google completely block websites linked to pirated material from showing up in search results. Google typically blocks links to the actual illegal content, not the websites themselves. The new change reflects its current stance, pushing violators down the search results ladder rather than nuking the links entirely.
"Since we re-booted our copyright removals over two years ago, we’ve been given much more data by copyright owners about infringing content online," Singhal said in a blog on Friday. "In fact, we’re now receiving and processing more copyright removal notices every day than we did in all of 2009—more than 4.3 million URLs in the last 30 days alone. We will now be using this data as a signal in our search rankings."
Google doesn't determine whether a website has infringed on copyrights -- that's left up to copyright holders and the legal system. That said, Google won't remove any pages from search results unless the company receives a valid copyright removal notice from the rights owner.
"And we’ll continue to provide 'counter-notice' tools so that those who believe their content has been wrongly removed can get it reinstated," he added. "We’ll also continue to be transparent about copyright removals."
Naturally Cary Sherman, CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America, applauds what's believed to be Google's most significant anti-piracy measure yet.
"Today Google has announced a potentially significant change in its search rankings that can make a meaningful difference to creators," Sherman said in a news release. "This change is an important step in the right direction -- a step we've been urging Google to take for a long time -- and we commend the company for its action."
Michael O’Leary of the Motion Picture Association of America doesn't seem quite so enthusiastic, but remains positive with the efforts nonetheless.
"We are optimistic that Google’s actions will help steer consumers to the myriad legitimate ways for them to access movies and TV shows online, and away from the rogue cyberlockers, peer-to-peer sites, and other outlaw enterprises that steal the hard work of creators across the globe," he said in a brief press release (pdf) "We will be watching this development closely -- the devil is always in the details -- and look forward to Google taking further steps to ensure that its services favor legitimate businesses and creators, not thieves."
Electronic Frontier Foundation staff attorney Julie Samuels called Google's process opaque and highlighted a number of unanswered questions such as what constitutes as a high number of removal notices, and how Google determines the ranking based on those numbers.
"Takedown requests are nothing more than accusations of copyright infringement," Samuels said. "No court or other umpire confirms that the accusations are valid (although copyright owners can be liable for bad-faith accusations). Demoting search results – effectively telling the searcher that these are not the websites you’re looking for – based on accusations alone gives copyright owners one more bit of control over what we see, hear, and read."