Section 115a of Australia’s Copyright Act allows copyright holders to apply for court injunctions that compel local ISPs to block subscribers from accessing ‘pirate’ sites.
Since it became active in 2015, the legislation has been used a number of times to block large numbers of mainly torrent and streaming platforms. However, such sites are often quick to adapt, deploying alternative domains, mirrors and proxies to undermine the blockades.
While Google has nothing to do with these actions, it has been regularly criticized for allowing users to carry out searches which enable them to find these workarounds. That has provoked harsh criticism from rightsholders, in particular Village Roadshow chief Graham Burke.
To tackle this and other loopholes, in November 2018 Australia passed new legislation that allows rightsholders to expand blocks without having to go to court. It also compels search providers to remove links to sites detailed in court orders from their search results.
While this framework is easily understood, this morning a report appeared in SMH declaring that peace has effectively broken out between rightsholders and Google.
The latter has reportedly entered into a “voluntary agreement” to remove 832 “sites” currently blocked by ISPs from its search results, despite the court orders covering these locations not necessarily applying to Google.
“This means we, as content owners, will be able to avoid the expense, effort, time and uncertainty of going to court,” Roadshow’s Burke said.
“We’ve gone from being enemies to being allies … because I believe Google is doing the right thing by Australians,” he added.
“[The] pirates’ business model is robbing and scamming people, they have sophisticated ways to take your information. Google has come down on the side that is right.”
Burke’s praise for Google is somewhat of a surprise and the turnaround in his tone quite remarkable. Equally, Google entering into a voluntary agreement over a process it slammed last year also raises eyebrows.
In particular, Google opposed any process that didn’t have the “direct oversight of the Federal Court” while noting that “there is no utility in extending site blocking schemes beyond ISPs to other online service providers.”
TorrentFreak contacted Google for additional detail last evening and it provided the following statement.
“Google supports effective industry led measures to fight piracy, and we invest significantly in the technology, tools and resources that prevent copyright infringement on our platforms,” a spokesperson said.
Google is clearly reluctant to put any additional meat on the bones of this “voluntary agreement” but TorrentFreak has learned that this scheme only affects Australia and is directly linked to the new legislation passed last year.
It seems possible then that this mass de-indexing of pirate resources represents a game of catch-up.
A large proportion of existing pirate sites are already blocked under existing court orders that were granted under earlier legislation that didn’t require search engine de-indexing. It therefore seems likely that in order to have Google remove the sites from its results, copyright holders would have to return to court.
For 832 sites (832 domains seems more realistic) this would be a time-consuming exercise and one with a guaranteed outcome. It therefore seems reasonable to conclude that the parties agreed to save time and money by cutting out the middle man and conceding to the inevitable.
Burke suggests the de-indexing has already taken place so TF carried out some tests using various sites, including the most obvious blocking and de-indexing target (ThePirateBay.org) to see the effects.
First, we used two Australian IP addresses (one in Melbourne, the other in Sydney) to access Google.com. We then searched for The Pirate Bay, which appeared as the top result each time.
We then switched to Google.com.au and tested again with same IP addresses but ThePirateBay.org appeared as the top result again.
We presented Google with these results and asked if it could explain the precise parameters of its de-indexing so we could report more accurately.
The company declined to comment but it’s possible that not all de-indexing operations have been carried out yet. It’s also possible that only users of the ISPs specifically listed in the original court orders are affected, such as those using Telstra, Optus, Vocus, TPG, and Vodafone, plus subsidiaries.