Google Preemptively Banned Hundreds of Millions of ‘Pirate’ URLs Last Year

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Google remains committed to tackling online piracy. In a recent letter to the US Patent and Trademark Office, the company says that it blocked hundreds of millions of URLs before they appeared in the search engine. These preemptive takedowns are part of a broader strategy that also deals with advertisements for streaming piracy that hasn't happened yet.

google pirateUnder the current DMCA legislation, US-based Internet services are expected to remove infringing links, if a copyright holder complains.

This process shields these services from direct liability. In recent years there has been a lot of discussion about the effectiveness of the system but it remains standard practice.

Google has always maintained that the DMCA works well. However, faced with critique from rightsholders, the company has taken a variety of extra anti-piracy measures across numerous services while pointing out that copyright holders have a key role to play.

Google’s View on Piracy

A few days ago, Google reiterated this stance. In a response to the US Patent and Trademark Office’s (USPTO) inquiry about future anti-piracy strategies and policies, Google stresses that the availability of legal content is key.

“For over two decades, we have observed that unmet consumer demand is a key driver of piracy. If demand is unmet by legitimate supply, users will seek pirated content. That is why one of the best ways to combat piracy is to provide better, more convenient, and legitimate alternatives,” Google writes.

With YouTube Music and YouTube TV, Google helps out on the supply side. At the same time, the company also tweaked its search engine to steer people away from piracy.

Like all other online service providers, Google processes DMCA takedown notices. When copyright holders find a link to pirated content in Google’s results they can report the URL, asking for it to be removed. This happened seven billion times over the past decade.

Preemptive Takedowns

This doesn’t mean that Google actually removed that many URLs from its search index. As reported before, Google also supports ‘preemptive‘ takedowns, which means that it will block reported URLs before they are indexed by the search engine.

These preemptive takedowns ensure that rightsholders can report content before Google picks it up. This isn’t required by the DMCA, but rightsholders use this feature en masse.

In the USPTO letter Google reveals that in 2022, more than 40% of the takedowns submitted via the web form were for content that hadn’t yet been indexed.

“Search accepts notices for web pages that are not even in our index at the time of submission. Nevertheless, we will proactively block such web pages from appearing in our Search results and will apply these notices to our demotion signal.

“In 2022, more than 40% of the over 680 million URLs we received via our web form were not in our Search index and therefore, have never appeared in our Search results,” the letter reads.

Pre-Piracy Removals

This percentage, which isn’t reported in Google’s transparency report, shows that ‘preemptive’ takedowns are quite popular. Interestingly, the search engine goes a step further, as it also accepts takedown notices for piracy that hasn’t happened yet.

For popular live-streaming broadcasts, such as the Super Bowl, UFC events, and World Cup football matches, pirates often generate websites in advance to announce their unauthorized streams. Copyright holders can now take these offline before a stream starts.

“Rightsholders are able to pre-notify us of web pages that advertise they will illegally stream a live event in the future,” Google writes.

pre-notify google

Demoting Pirate Sites

All the copyrighted URLs that rightsholders report are added to a scorecard. Sites that are often targeted are actively demoted in search results, making these less visible to the public at large. According to Google, this works well.

“Our experience shows that demoted sites lose an average of 89% of their clicks from Search. In addition to these efforts, we have made it much harder for sites to evade demotion by redirecting people to a new domain,” Google writes.

The full letter also includes other steps that the company has taken to address piracy. While not explicitly mentioned, Google appears pleased with how things are right now and doesn’t have any concrete anti-piracy proposals for the future.

That said, Google stresses that it is committed to investing in new tools and processes to combat the ever-evolving piracy challenge.

A copy of Google’s full letter to the US Patent and Trademark Office is available here (pdf)


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