Three Reasons Why Google’s Censorship of “Piracy-Related Terms” is a Terrible Idea

January 27, 2011 , , , ,

Earlier today, word spread that Google, presumably bowing to pressure from Hollywood and the recording industry, had begun blocking certain “piracy-related terms” from its autocomplete search feature. As it turns out, the terms in question are “BitTorrent,” “Rapidshare” and “Megaupload”. There are plenty of reasons why this is a terrible idea but for brevity’s sake, I will limit myself to three:

  1. This kind of censorship is a slippery slope: Who decided that “BitTorrent,” “Rapidshare” and “Megaupload” were “piracy-related terms”? Why these terms and not “YouSendIt,” “Mediafire,” “Sendspace” or “Dropbox”? Why not other file transfer protocols like FTP? The fact of the matter is that all of these services and protocols are equally capable of hosting both infringing and non-infringing material. By singling out BitTorrent, Rapidshare and Megaupload, Google (or whoever is cherry-picking these terms) is exercising an editorial judgement that holds the potential to pick winners and losers online. And if this effort proves ‘effective,’ why not censor those other terms as well? Or extend this sort of censorship to cover all search requests? There’s another wrinkle in this that’s worth mentioning: Google’s own Google Docs has a file-delivery feature that competes with the likes of Rapidshare and Megaupload. While I don’t assume that Google’s motives here are anti-competitive in nature, the company should realize that the optics here are potentially very bad.   
  2. This kind of censorship could have numerous chilling effects: We all know that services like BitTorrent and Rapidshare have plenty of legitimate uses. I’ll talk briefly about one: independent music distribution. If you attended our World’s Fair Use Day event earlier this month, you heard the NYC hip-hop group Das Racist discuss how they’ve managed to achieve widespread notoriety without a record label or even a ‘proper’ record, for that matter. Das Racist now uses Bandcamp to distribute their free, original mixtapes but originally, they relied on file-delivery services like Megaupload to deliver their music to fans. Needless to say, this sort of censorship makes it harder for independent artists like Das Racist to compete with established artists. And the same goes for the scores of independent filmmakers, photographers, game developers and others who rely on these services.   
  3. There are already mechanisms in place for dealing with this kind of infringement: Say what you will about the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) but when used properly, its notice and takedown system provides an effective (if imperfect) means for dealing with infringing material while also providing recourse for users through a counter-notice system. At present, rightsholders can file a takedown notice with a file-delivery service if they believe that the service is hosting infringing content. These services, in turn, are legally obligated to comply with these takedown requests and indeed, most do (to be fair, both Rapidshare and Megaupload are hosted by overseas companies and may not be subject to the DMCA notice-and-takedown system). However, when Google chooses to censor whole sites and services at the search level, what recourse do these companies, let alone their users, have? While Google has recognized the importance of the counter-notice system and has even pledged to help improve it, this sort of censorship undermines the company’s efforts to, as they put it, “make copyright work better online”.          
All told, this seems like a pretty ham-fisted way to deal with online infringement and its efficacy seems questionable at best (at the moment, users can simply get around this blockade by performing a regular search). But perhaps that’s the point? Considering both the recent crackdown on remixes on Soundcloud and the “Black Friday” seizure of domains belonging to hip-hop blogs, the message being sent by rightsholders seems clear: they might have stopped suing individual users but their crusade to fight online infringement using blunt tools is far from over.