RIAA Slams Google For Anti-Piracy Fail

Frustrated and bitter that laws like SOPA and PIPA have yet to get pushed through Congress without those pesky constituents objecting to turning the U.S. government into muscle for entertainment industry, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is taking out its anger on Google. The music industry lobbying group is accusing the search engine giant of failing to effectively demote search results that lead people to those nasty little download sites.

In a blog post on the RIAA site yesterday, Steven M. Marks, EVP & General Counsel, RIAA made it clear that the music copyright association thinks that Google, despite making some headway, remains a day late and a dollar short.

"We recognize and appreciate that Google has undertaken some positive steps to address links to illegal music on its network," said Steven M. Marks, the RIAA's executive vice president and general counsel. "Unfortunately, our initial analysis concludes that so far Google's pledge six months ago to demote pirate sites remains unfulfilled. Searches for popular music continue to yield results that emphasize illegal sites at the expense of legitimate services, which are often relegated to later pages. And Google's auto-complete function continues to lead users to many of those same illicit sites."

(This isn't the first time: see also RIAA Slams Google's Anti-Piracy Efforts, Demands Even More Unreasonable Measures.)

Testing The Claims

I wanted to see if the RIAA might be overstating its concerns, something that they've been known to do before. So I performed a little one-man experiment, using the song "Some Nights" by Fun. as the guinea pig. Your mileage may vary, of course, but my quick-and-dirty test revealed that the RIAA may have some valid claims.

A search for "Fun. album" returned a first, second, and third page of results that were absent of any results that would seem to contain illegal downloads, with the bottom of the third page containing three DMCA takedown notices that point to the Electronic Frontier Foundation's ChillingEffects.org for more information.

But down in the "Searches related to" section of all of the results pages, "fun. some nights download" was among the listings, and a click-through pulled in the plenty of links to aggregate MP3 download sites, mixed with a few legitimate sites, like iTunes (#3), Amazon (#7) and the official video on YouTube (#8).

As for the RIAA's claim that Google's AutoComplete will suggest search terms that could lead users to sites containing unlicensed copies of songs, I found this was indeed true. By the time I typed "fun. some", Google had filled in four results:

fun. some nights
fun. some nights lyrics
fun. some nights meaning
fun. some nights mp3

On a whim, I turned on SafeSearch to see if that would make a difference. Results did differ on some search results, such as "fun. some nights download", where legitimate sites (like the Wikipedia entry for the album) were moved up slightly on the first page of results, but the sketchy download sites were still in full-glory display.

I should also note that the RIAA did not take Microsoft's Bing service to task, even thought the same experiment on Bing yielded very similar results, even in the auto-complete results. Type in "fun. some" on the Bing home page and you get these helpful suggestions:

fun. some nights lyrics
fun. some nights
fun. some nights meaning
fun. some nights torrent
fun. some nights video
fun. some nights album download
fun. some nights mp3
fun. some nights review

Search Engines As Police?

Based on these (admittedly quick) search tests, it seems like the RIAA has a point, and Google is failing to block apparent pirate sites on its search results, and its demotion policy announced in August 2012 isn't really working all that well, either.

But let's be clear: Google has said all along it wasn't going to block site results from any site unless it receives a specific copyright removal request from the rights owner.

"Only copyright holders know if something is authorized, and only courts can decide if a copyright has been infringed; Google cannot determine whether a particular webpage does or does not violate copyright law. So while this new signal will influence the ranking of some search results, we won't be removing any pages from search results unless we receive a valid copyright removal notice from the rights owner," senior vice president of engineering Amit Singhal wrote back in August.

At the time, what Google said it would do was add a new signal to how it ranks search results.

"Starting next week, we will begin taking into account a new signal in our rankings: the number of valid copyright removal notices we receive for any given site. Sites with high numbers of removal notices may appear lower in our results," Singhal stated.

The RIAA is contending in its statement this week that Google has failed to live up to that promise.

One has to wonder, though, if trying to keep up with the sheer number of sites that provide access to unlicensed media content is comparable to spitting on a forest fire. If the signal for page ranking depends in some way on number of takedown attempts, perhaps the RIAA and other rights holders are not sending enough signals. Or maybe these sites know who to game other ranking signals to boost their status on Google and Bing search results.

It is very easy to point fingers at Google and Bing and accuse them of not doing enough to keep people away from pirated media. If you forget, of course, that this not their job.

Complaining about the auto-completing results would seem to be a more valid concern, until you remember that there could be legitimate results for "download X."

The RIAA wants to protect the rights of its artists and producers, a valid concern. But it is not clear at all that Google, Microsoft and the other search engines should be relied upon as key allies in the recording industry's ongoing quest to stomp piracy. Search engines' missions are to provide data, not analyze that data for legality.

Despite what they're asking for here, I suspect even the most vehement anti-piracy activists would not care for some of the implications of a world where search engines were to undertake that goal.