Friday 20 July 2012

Piracy : Google's Responsibility?

Over this last week, the UK news has shifted some focus onto the debate between the British Phonographic Industry (now calling itself the British Recorded Music Industry, but still abbreviating itself to BPI) and Google. The BPI is pushing for Google to take a more active role in preventing music piracy by preventing websites which are known for illegal file-sharing from appearing as a top result in searches. The example being thrown about is that performing a Google search for "Adele mp3" will provide links to infringing websites before displaying the likes of iTunes or Amazon.

Google already receives thousands of requests from copyright holders for the removal of links to sites that are providing illegal downloads, and has been upholding the majority of these. Theo Bertram, the UK Policy Manager for Google, has offered a reply-of-sorts to the BPI's demand, saying that Google is steadfastly anti-piracy but also pro-freedom of expression - and that the two are not mutually exclusive. Google instead suggests that the source of income that these offending websites have in advertising or payments for subscriptions should be removed, thereby making it financially difficult for the sites to exist. It does not feel liable nor responsible: the sites are indexed by Google, and shown as results based on popularity and relevance. Google isn't hosting the sites, nor is Google purposely promoting them.

My opinion (for what it's worth)?

I don't think Google should be held accountable nor responsible. For a start, keeping a track of all the illegal music-sharing websites and removing them must be a mammoth task. A task that will never end since the websites will just move, become mirrored, or find some other smart way around it. And other sites will also start up. Google is doing a pretty good job of keeping up with the requests for removal, but it's endless. As for adjusting the position of a website in search results... I think that could be the beginning of something dangerous. Is it up to Google (or another organisation/corporation) to dictate what should and shouldn't be a) indexed, b) searchable and c) listed highly (even if the click-through ratio for that site happens to be particularly high)?

Again: Google doesn't provide the content, it doesn't host the content, it doesn't associate with it. Google's search tool is just that: a tool. And although using similes is a lazy, flawed, and incredibly easy way to draw comparisons, I'm gonna' do it anyway...

The Internet is like an unbelievably huge city with billions of locations in the forms of websites, trillions of roads between those sites, and massive diversity between locations. Like any city, there are "bad" areas and "good" areas; places the public shy away from, and places that people flock to; locations with a reputation for wrong-doing, and those with metaphorical halos hanging above them. How do you find ANYTHING in a city like that? You need a map. The map provides you with the location of everything, as long as you know what you are looking for, and then off you go if you want to.

Google is your map. It doesn't tell you to go to the disreputable locations. It tells you where they are. Should our town maps cover up the areas where criminal activity is likely to take place, just so we find it harder to get there?

If I'm going to go really ridiculous with the similes, I could say: "A hammer is a tool. It is not the fault of the tool's manufacturer if someone buys one and then beats someone else around the head with it". But then things start to edge towards discussions about knife crime, or gun ownership, and really that's a little too far...

Google DOES have a certain amount of responsibility towards safe and sensible usage of the Internet, but I do not feel that they should be called up to begin a censorship programme at another organisation's demands. Equally, Google is not the only search engine on the Internet. It's own popularity should not make it a sole target. The BPI should be approaching ALL search engines and, *ahem*, "decision engines" that can be used to reach offending websites if it actually feels they are the root of the problem.

I admit it's a difficult issue, and a difficult battle. Back in the day, Napster was shut down because it provided the tools for people to illegally share music - even though it didn't host the files itself. However, it's intentions for infringement were substantially clearer. But where on earth do you draw the line, if you draw it at all?

I stand by Google's position, and I also feel it is unfair that they should become a target for blame due to the size of the company and its financial success. It is individuals that are pirating and sharing music. The public attitude towards music, it's value, and an artist's worth needs to be changed before anything major will ever happen. Piracy has often been seen as a victimless crime... a non-criminal crime, as such. Until this attitude changes, it's going to be a losing battle.

Incidentally, there's such a ridiculous amount of legal free music available on the Internet, that scouring sites for an illegal download of that latest Rihanna hit almost seems a little silly. Just because it's being freely distributed without any copyright infringement, doesn't mean it's rubbish. I mean, seriously, it's possible to spend your hard earned money on some serious dross, so why not go low-risk and discover something guilt-free too.