August 10, 2012; Source: Washington Post

Bowing to ongoing pressure from copyright holders, Google has announced on its blog that its search engine algorithm will now “begin taking into account a new signal in our rankings: the number of valid copyright removal notices we receive for any given site.” The move was met with approval from copyright owners who have been scratching their heads as to how to address online piracy of copyrighted content; the Motion Picture Association of America said the move “will help steer consumers to the myriad of legal ways for them to access movies and TV shows online.”

Digital copyright protection via a search engine is a difficult balancing act, however. John Bergmayer of the digital watchdog group Public Knowledge warns that the new component of Google’s algorithm could be abused; for instance, a competitor could bombard Google with false infringement notices directed at a rival in order to knock the rival down in Google’s search rankings. Bergmayer also notes that some sites—those that solicit and/or display user-generated content—may be more likely to generate infringement notices, but he argues that “lawful sites shouldn’t be penalized simply for their business model”—particularly given that such a model is protected under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) also expresses concerns with the new policy, finding it “particularly troubling” that “there will be no process or recourse for sites who have been demoted” in search rankings due to claims of copyright infringement. EFF authors Julie Samuels and Mitch Stoltz explain:

“In particular, we worry about the false positives problem. For example, we’ve seen the government wrongly target sites that actually have a right to post the allegedly infringing material in question or otherwise legally display content. In short, without details on how Google’s process works, we have no reason to believe they won’t make similar, over-inclusive mistakes, dropping lawful, relevant speech lower in its search results without recourse for the speakers.”

As a private company, Google is naturally free to set up its algorithm however it likes, but given its long-held founding principle—“Don’t be evil”—and the amount of time it has resisted pressure from copyright holders to get into the business of evaluating content, it appears that the search giant is intent on maintaining a fair approach to the architecture of its search engine. Nonetheless, this move opens the door to possible tampering with legal content and speech. Nonprofits with their eye on the digital world, such as Public Knowledge and EFF, will now have one more thing to keep an eye on. –Mike Keefe-Feldman