Google: Pirate Site Blocking Just Leads To a Game of Whac-a-Mole

During a debate in London last night, Google's UK policy manager said that he believes that blocking 'pirate' sites only leads to a game of whac-a-mole, whereas going after them as a business is more effective. The debate's key theme was whether it would be possible to strangle advertising revenue to unauthorized sites but it's no surprise that the BPI took the opportunity to criticize Google for still not doing enough to hold back piracy.

‘Follow the Money: Can The Business of Ad-Funded Piracy Be Throttled?’ was the title of a debate held last night at the University of Westminster in London and attended by artists, labels, the BPI and Google.

The follow-the-money approach to piracy has gained traction in recent months and efforts are already underway to cut the flow of advertising revenue to non-licensed music and movie sites.

Emphasis has been placed on embarrassing big brands by pointing out when their ads appear on sites deemed unacceptable to the music industry. That strategy has been helped along by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Innovation Lab, who were also present at last night’s event.

Musically has a very lengthy but excellent report on the overall debate but perhaps of most interest to our readers is the how comments from Theo Bertram, UK policy manager at Google, appear to clarify the company’s stance on the piracy issue. Google will do their part, but won’t take on responsibility for work that should be carried out by other companies.

First, Google’s attention was drawn to its search results, with complaints from musician David Lowery that a search for Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Call Me Maybe’ (call me maybe download) conjured up a list of unlicensed sites, some of which have (or used to have) an advertising relationship with Google.

ITunes failed to appear in a prominent position in the results which begs an important question that doesn’t appear to have been discussed. Why can’t Apple, the most successful and cash-rich digital music product company in the world, achieve a better search engine placement than a low budget MP3 search engine that hardly anyone has heard of? Google’s fault? That seems unlikely.

Nevertheless, Geoff Taylor of the BPI said that Google has the both the information and technological ability to make that happen.

“[Google] know very well what sites are illegal, because we send them notices, a million a week, yet coming on to search, very often those sites appear at the top of search results,” he said.

From here it’s interesting to see how the conversation develops. Google clearly accepts that it has a part to play in solving the problem but understands better than anyone else that interfering with search results, especially on the basis of a loose assessment on which sites may or may not be infringing on someone else’s rights, is a tricky game. After all, if DMCA notices sent to Google were the definitive barometer of illegality, Google itself would be the most illegal site in the world.

“I am an optimist, in that search will get better, and be able to serve people with the results exactly that they want, and to do so utterly lawfully as well,” said Bertram. Google’s policy manager later added in a Q&A that basic search results for an artist were turning up fewer pirate sites after the company adjusted its algorithm last year, but conceded that when people were more specific by adding “download MP3″, Google aren’t so good on the downgrades.

“I know the complexities can be seen as something to hide behind. It is easier to tell whether something is pornography than whether something is licensed or not. The legal basis for declaring a whole site unlawful in the UK at least still only applies to a relatively small handful of websites.”

Perhaps understandably this was a red line for the BPI’s Geoff Taylor, who pointed out that The Pirate Bay and sites such as KickAssTorrents and H33T have already been deemed illegal by the UK High Court yet Google still indexes them. Bertram defended, saying that when users click the results they discover the sites are blocked by court order, something which he feels is useful for them to see.

whacamole“Blocking websites, I don’t think is as effective as going after them as a business,” he said, using the now-defunct Megaupload as an example.

“The supply that was going to Megaupload had simply shifted to a whole new range of middle-ranking pirate sites. My worry is if we’re going after them one at a time with blocking, you start getting into the whac-a-mole thing.”

While the recording and movie industries are clearly pro-blocking, Google believes the issue can be dealt with by starving pirate sites of advertising revenue, something that should be handled by the advertisers themselves. All they have to do is provide a list of sites where ads shouldn’t appear.

“It’s not Google’s job to go around the web to declare whether sites are legal or illegal, but if Coca-Cola comes to us and says here’s a list of 500 dynamic sites and we don’t want you to place ads on those, that’s a slightly different thing. It’s almost a marketing thing for the brand,” he said.

Bertram also noted Google’s stance should it become aware that it had served ads to sites promoting infringing content.

“You have an obligation to take [the ads] down. We’re doing that at record levels, but we know we need to do more,” he said, adding that if only “dodgy brands and dodgy agencies” are left working with “dodgy sites”, enough will have been done to ensure that piracy is no longer a profitable business.

The theory is that if the money is taken away, piracy will no longer flourish. It’s an interesting assertion that will definitely hold true for some file-sharing sites. However, for the majority of people providing the actual content – the guy in the street who wants to share – the approach will need some tuning since he’s already making no money. Bringing those guys together without a middle-man might be the next logical file-sharing evolution, if advertising in the traditional sense becomes non-viable.

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