Google as in “Massive Copyright Infringement”

Torrent index sites like The Pirate Bay are often compared to search engines such as Google in that both offer vast indexes of information, and both give easy access to unauthorized copies of copyrighted material.

One thing which surfaced during the Pirate Bay trial in late February was IFPI’s cooperation with Google and other search services in their battles against copyright infringement. When IFPI’s representative John Kennedy was asked why they sued The Pirate Bay and not Google (as in “or any other major information filtering service using the internet”), the answer was that Google cooperated, and The Pirate Bay didn’t :

When asked about the differences between TPB and Google, Kennedy said there is no comparison. “We talk to Google all the time about preventing piracy. If you go to Google and type in Coldplay you get 40 million results – press stories, legal Coldplay music, review, appraisals of concerts/records. If you go to Pirate Bay you will get less than 1000 results, all of which give you access to illegal music or videos. Unfortunately The Pirate Bay does what it says in its description and its main aim is to make available unauthorized material. It filters fake material, it authorizes, it induces.”

(…) Kennedy was asked why they haven’t sued Google the same way as TPB. He said that Google said they would partner IFPI in fighting piracy and he has a team of 10 people working with Google every day, and if Google hadn’t announced they were a partner, IFPI would have sued them too.

I think the truth of the matter is, that Google’s business is based on copyright infringement from the start. When Brin and Page started Google, they started by downloading the entire internet and offering their index of it online. In the words of Larry Page himself, in David Vise’s The Google Story :

Google was started when Sergey and I were Ph.D. students at Stanford University in computer science, and we didn’t know exactly what we wanted to do. I got this crazy idea that I was going to download the entire Web onto my computer. I told my advisor that it would only take a week. After about a year or so, I had some portion of it.

In order to offer Google’s search of their index to the world, they had to keep all the internet’s content on their own servers, otherwise their results wouldn’t be very fast. Did they ask every single website owner or administrator for permission to use said material? No. Did they need to? No, in fact they couldn’t. That would have been prohibitive for what they were doing. The cost alone of asking would have been prohibitive for what Google was doing, if they even knew themselves, what they were doing.

However, was what they did beneficial to the world? Yes, one may very well say so, to a degree that Google is now a hugely successful business whose operations span the globe and benefit millions, if not billions of people on a daily business. What Google did was transformative, defining of the internet. It defined the web.

What Google added was their filtering index of the web. On their servers, the content of sites were analyzed and ranked according to PageRank, an algorithm which rewards sites which are greatly linked to with a better placement in search results than sites which have generated fewer links.

But for this to work they needed the data to work with. Google has done a lot to give users the impression, than when one is using their core product (search), it appears like one has instant access to all of the World Wide Web. This is a brilliant illusion, but no matter how good it is, one is still only surfing around on Google’s own servers, which store Terabyte after Terabyte of unauthorized copies of copyrighted material. The fact remains, that Google took this data, without asking anyone for permission. Perhaps they didn’t need to, perhaps they didn’t deem it necessary. What Google did was one of the greatest things that could have happened to the web at the time, and what everyone else involved in the search industry was doing. Throwing around data without paying any kind of homage to copyright owners. To the great benefit of everyone of us today, most will say.

What The Pirate Bay and other sites are doing today – is no less transformative. But they’re not cooperating.

What happened since Google introduced their filters to the world was that the “war on piracy” became greatly intensified. Napster and peer-to-peer networks threatened the monopolies of first the record industry, since the Hollywood-based entertainment industry. Google and other services which offer online metadata – i.e. access to “other people’s” information via the internet, got trapped in that battle. Some felt they had to choose sides. And most chose to cooperate with the entertainment industries – over what was right or true or just. Whether this line of business was born out of the pragmatism of doing “business” and avoid expensive law suits or out of a mission to “do no evil” doesn’t matter. Google and likeminded companies will do a lot to cover up the fact that what they are doing is based on massive copyright infringement – including cooperating with IFPI to filter online information – every day. Which in my humble opinion is very creepy.

I say this as a big fan of Google, as a daily user of countless Google products, which I would hate to live without.

It’s a pretty good fraud. Cooperate with IFPI and other copyright holders to only slightly cover up the fact, that the whole thing is based on copying other people’s material. Blur the distinctions to the extent that it even confuses the courts as to what they should believe. What is really the difference between Google and similar search filters and a service such as The Pirate Bay? Both store and provide access to metadata. But while the first stores everything on their own servers, from where they provide access to local sites and material – The Pirate Bay and others employ a superior technology, which offers nothing but hyperlinks directly to material stored on their users’ own machines. So why should The Pirate Bay lose the case which is going on right now in Sweden? Because they do not cooperate. They do not care about anyone’s material. What they’re interested in is developing a new technology to the benefit of all of us. They do what Google did in 1998, except they do not commit any copyright infringement at all.

On a curious note, Google also ranks web sites according to how “unique” their contents are. This means, that if you run an aggregation site, i.e. a site which harvests and provides access to the content of other web sites – just like Google did, and still do – Google assigns you penalty points, and your site will be harder to find using Google’s search. Your site will rank lower, if you do what Google does : copy the content of other websites.

What’s really scary however is the degree to which we rely on proprietary filtering services such as Google’s search, which are influenced by interests we don’t know about. Google presents itself as an almost universally neutral service, which can give us an instant answer to almost every problem we face. The truth is, Google is in fact a highly weighted information filtering service, which is influenced by the special interests of organizations such as IFPI, on no legal grounds except what pleases and what not pleases Google and is completely dependant on their choice to cooperate. We don’t know what other special interests Google chooses to cooperate with, and we have absolutely nothing to say as to whether they do and how they let their search results be influenced by them. I can only conclude, that while a few young people in Sweden are willing to stand up for our freedom of speech (for this is what I consider the “freedom to link” to be) – it is shameful to realize again and again, that the world’s information filtering superpower is not.

In my view there is no other way out of this misery than to create and help build new sets of truly de-centralized information filtering tools and services, which are based on free software, which cannot be influenced, manipulated or dominated by any particular third party. Tools which enable better, faster and more precise connections between someone who wants a message or query out – and those who wish to receive and answer it. We’re still throwing around rocks in our information stone age when playing with proprietary services and tools such as Twitter, YouTube and the many many others we use on a daily basis.

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2 comments ↓

#1 Alberto Cottica on 04.20.09 at 1:19 am

Great post, Morten, thanks for sharing your thoughts. We need this kind of thinking in the European parliament. I hope that you can find a competent candidate to vote for in June.

#2 Morten Blaabjerg on 04.20.09 at 10:35 am

Thanks. I hope so too!

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