UK Considers Fines to Force Search Engines to Tackle Piracy

Proposed amendments to the UK's Digital Economy Bill have revealed a desire by some MPs to force search engines to tackle piracy. A new clause would require search engines to come to a voluntary arrangement with rightsholders, or face being forced into one by the government.

parliamentContent owners regularly accuse companies such as Google and Bing of including infringing content in their search results, often on the initial pages following a search where exposure to the public is greatest.

In addition to having these ‘pirate’ results demoted or removed entirely, content providers believe that results featuring genuine content should receive priority, to ensure that the legitimate market thrives.

At least in part, Google has complied with industry requests. Sites which receive the most takedown notices are demoted in results, while some legitimate content has been appearing higher. But of course, entertainment industry companies want more – and they might just get it.

Currently under discussion in Parliament is the Digital Economy Bill. It’s been covered here on several occasions (1,2,3) due to a key aim of harmonizing the punishments for on-and-offline infringement.

However, the Bill appears to be broadening in scope and the role of search engines is now on the agenda, something which the BPI hinted at last week in comments to TorrentFreak.

A new clause titled “Power to provide for a code of practice related to copyright infringement” envisions a situation whereby search engines come to a voluntary agreement with rightsholders on how best to tackle piracy, or have one forced upon them.

“The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision for a search engine to be required to adopt a code of practice concerning copyright infringement that complies with criteria specified in the regulations,” the proposed clause reads.

“The regulations may provide that if a search engine fails to adopt such a code of practice, any code of practice that is approved for the purposes of that search engine by the Secretary of State, or by a person designated by the Secretary of State, has effect as a code of practice adopted by the search engine.”

If the clause was adopted, the Secretary of State would also be granted powers to investigate disputes surrounding a search engine’s compliance with any code, appoint a regulator, and/or impose “financial penalties or other sanctions” if companies like Google fall short.

The Conservative government previously made a manifesto commitment to reduce copyright infringement and several MPs believe that this clause would help it to achieve that aim.

Speaking in Parliament this week, Labour MP Kevin Brennan said that Baroness Neville-Rolfe, the Minister for Intellectual Property, had chaired a series of roundtable discussions and meetings between rights holders and search engines including Google, Bing and Yahoo.

The rights holders proposed a voluntary code of practice, with some interesting parameters for the search engines to live up to.

“The guiding principles for the voluntary code of conduct would have been that in the top three results, fewer than 1% link to illegal sites; in the top 10, fewer than 5%; and in the top 20, fewer than 10%,” Brennan explained.

“Achieving these objectives would improve the quality of search results and resolve disadvantages that limit the visibility of legitimate sites on which consumers can buy or stream copyrighted works.”

However, it appears that the search engines in question aren’t particularly enthusiastic about the role they’re being asked to play.

“In essence, rights holders want search engines to do what ISPs already do — work co-operatively to take action against sites that have been identified by the High Court as pirate sites — but despite numerous efforts, search engines will not co-operate or agree to the code of practice,” Brennan said.

“They continue to take little responsibility for the fact that listings can overwhelmingly consist of illegal content—the equivalent of the ‘Yellow Pages’ refusing to take responsibility for publishing the details of crooked traders and fraudsters.”

Introducing the new clause (which grants the Secretary of State power to fine search engines) could help the search engines to become more compliant, Brennan said.

“Given the difficulties in negotiations, the new clause would provide a legal backstop to prevent search engines from refusing point-blank to co-operate in discussions. While the code of practice remains a voluntary dream, search engines can refuse to collaborate, as they have for many years.”

Concluding, Brennan indicated that given the Digital Economy Bill is in front of MPs, there is no better time to introduce such a clause. However, Minister for Digital and Culture Matt Hancock urged patience.

“I care about the substance of getting this Bill through right. There are, of course, important parts of parliamentary process both here and in the [House of Lords],” Hancock said.

“Given that the round table discussions are ongoing, including a meeting next week, now is not the right time for the broad reserve power.”

The debates continue.

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