Google Gives Big Content an Olive Branch in Search Algorithm Change

Google will begin altering its search algorithm this week to lower search rankings of sites with “high numbers” of copyright-infringement removal notices.

Google is mum on the details of the plan, which some digital rights groups like Public Knowledge suggest is “setting up a process that can be abused” because “entities with questionable copyright claims might be more willing to send” takedown notices to Google.

The search giant’s move looks to be designed to head off potential legislation giving the Justice Department the power to seek court orders requiring search engines like Google include in search results websites the government declares to be rogue. Such a feature was included in the Stop Online Piracy Act, which was defeated for altogether different reasons in January because the package also included tinkering with the (DNS) domain name system.

What’s more, Google’s newly added “signal” to its closely held search algorithm shows that the company has grown beyond just being a search giant. It’s also a giant media company, and its newly redesigned Android marketplace, now called Google Play, underscores that. The storefront sells music, books, magazines, movies and TV shows, featuring them more prominently than “Android apps”.

So for Google, it makes no sense for it to highly rank pirate sites to the detriment of its own business model and the companies it needs to strike content deals with — especially given a Congress that is all too willing to adopt even more Draconian anti-piracy measures. That’s all to the backdrop of the popularity of the Nexus 7 Android tablet, content deals for YouTube, the redesign of Google TV, and the forthcoming Nexus Q — all gateways to digital media stores and Big Content.

The major broadcasters, ABC, NBC, and CBS, allĀ block their websites from being streamed on the Google TV set-top box — so perhaps Google’s new search algorithm is another example of Google offering Big Content an olive branch.

A Google spokesman said a primary reason for the changeover was to better the “user experience” in Google search to direct internet surfers to “high-quality” sites. The plan — which won’t affect popular, user-generated sites like Google-owned YouTube, Twitter, Amazon and Facebook — was not a result of any “deal” with the content industry, the spokesman said.

Google said it processed more than 4.3 million removal notices the past month alone. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, search engines must remove links upon request by rights holders who tell the company the links lead to infringing content. If Google doesn’t remove the link, Google itself may be liable for infringement.

Site owners can send a counternotice, and the link will be reinstated. The game of cat and mouse may result in lawsuits.

“Only copyright holders know if something is authorized, and only courts can decide if a copyright has been infringed; Google cannot determine whether a particular webpage does or does not violate copyright law,” said Amit Singhal, a Google engineering vice president. “So while this new signal will influence the ranking of some search results, we won’t be removing any pages from search results unless we receive 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.”

Sure, our immediate reaction to Google’s announcement Friday was the “don’t be evil” company is again being evil. Last week, for example, it settled with the Federal Trade Commission for $22.5 million, a record fine, for intentionally circumventing the default privacy settings of Apple’s Safari browser to set cookies on the browser despite it being configured to reject them.

But Google is not the government and has the First Amendment right to rank how it sees fit (though it’s an open question whether anti-monopoly laws trump that right in some cases).

But Google’s move shows that its commitment to delivering the best result for any user’s search isn’t categorical any more, and its proprietary algorithms are subject to change as dictated by business models far removed from anything to do with search.

It’s yet more proof that search is too important to allow any company to have a monopoly on it, natural or otherwise. But that’s a problem only internet users themselves can solve by voting with their browsers and search engines.