Copyright accusations to influence Google search results

Google’s to start demoting sites in its search results that receive large numbers of valid copyright-infringement notices – delighting the content industry, but worrying free-speech campaigners.

The company says it’s now receiving and processing more copyright removal notices every day than it did during the whole of 2009 — more than 4.3 million URLs in the last 30 days alone.

It now plans to use this data as a signal in its search rankings.

“Sites with high numbers of removal notices may appear lower in our results,” says Amit Singhal, senior voce president of engineering.

“This ranking change should help users find legitimate, quality sources of content more easily — whether it’s a song previewed on NPR’s music website, a TV show on Hulu or new music streamed from Spotify.”

The move’s been welcomed by rights owners such as the British Phonographic Industry (BPI).

“We have argued for some time that the fact that certain websites are subject to very high numbers of DMCA notifications, because they feature a large amount of illegal content, should be reflected in lower search rankings,” says chief executive Geoff Taylor.

“Consumers overwhelmingly want and expect the top search results for entertainment content to feature legal, licensed services.  We will look carefully at how much impact this change will have in practice, but we welcome the announcement from Google and will be pressing other search engines to follow suit.”

Google promises that it won’t be removing any pages unless it gets a valid copyright removal notice from the rights owner, and says it’ll continue to provide ‘counter-notice’ tools so that those who believe their content has been wrongly removed can get it reinstated.

But the move’s received sharp criticism from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which says Google’s being alarmingly vague about how many take-down notices will trigger a removal, and whether removed sites will have any recourse.

“Takedown requests are nothing more than accusations of copyright infringement. No court or other umpire confirms that the accusations are valid (although copyright owners can be liable for bad-faith accusations),” warn the EFF’s Julie Samuels and Mitch Stoltz.

“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.”