Google released an unusual report on Tuesday—”How Google Fights Piracy,” a 25-page document that detailed its anti-piracy principles, the efforts it has made to minimize piracy, and the limits of its power to stop illegal downloading. This wasn’t a well-researched white paper, proposing new ideas, and it wasn’t a press release—it didn’t contain any news. It resembled most closely a position paper from a political campaign: It laid out the company’s record, making some less-than-revolutionary promise for the future, and cited a lot of statistics.
Who was this document for, and what was it intended to accomplish? Among reporters, there were three going theories—that it was meant to suck up to the film and music industries; that it was meant to defend Google from criticism, particularly from the White House, that the company had not done enough to combat piracy; and that it was a data-driven “screw you” to industry interests who were toying with censorship as a policy solution to piracy.
The tech site The Verge, for instance, offered the first theory: “Amid the takedown statistics and policy explanation, Google wants everyone to know just how awesome it is for artists,” wrote Adi Robertson. At Forbes, Emma Woollacoot was more direct, calling the report “an attempt to improve its PR and woo the film and music industries.”
The second theory, as AdWeek put it, was that the report was “Google’s answer to its critics”; TorrentFreak, a blog that covers BitTorrent and copyright, said the paper was meant “to show the public and policy makers how the company addresses copyright infringement.”
But the report was obtuse enough in its intent that it was possible to read a feistier and more antagonistic intent into it, as Gizmodo’s Mario Aguilar did. He notes that Google’s been hard at work to take down pages that the music and movie industries flag as copyright infringers, and writes, “Now Google’s fighting back against censorship with data. Google has been at odds with the recording industry’s mouthpiece for some time over links to illegal music downloads in search results.”
This is the story that Aguilar has been telling for a while about the sparring between ISPs like Google and industry groups like the Recording Industry Association of America. Back in 2012, when Google started sharing information about copyright takedowns in its transparency report, he wrote that “it’s clear that no matter what Google does, the RIAA won’t ever be satisfied until Google starts wholesale censoring its search results.”
Whatever reporters read into the Google’s anti-piracy report, it is fair to say that industry groups like the RIAA and the Motion Picture Association of America are not satisfied with the efforts Google has made so far. Both groups released statements, which a number of reporters picked up, indicating that, if Google’s goal was to suck up to them, it needed to keep working. The MPAA said the tech company “can and should play a more constructive role in directing consumers to legal content” and the RIAA sniffed that “ultimately, the appropriate benchmarks are metrics that demonstrate that piracy has been reduced.”
This is the sort of resistance that leads Aguilar to his theory about censorship:
[The report] points to data showing that search isn’t driving piracy: All of the major search engines combined account for only 16-percent of the Pirate Bay’s traffic. Nevermind that it’s impossible to eradicate infringing content from an Internet full of 60 trillion links altogether in the first place. Get rid of one batch of links and another will crop up.
So it’s unclear what “Action” the RIAA is asking for. The implication, and the RIAA is very careful to dance around this type of action, is some kind of preemptive censorship.
Censorship is a loaded word, but Aguilar’s description of the RIAA’s needs and wants is accurate enough. It is unclear what the group is asking for; its statement says Google should work with the industry on solutions that “can better promote the extensive array of digital music services and ensure that all those notices and take downs actually reduce piracy.”
One solution that the industry has pushed for in the past is legislation—the Stop Online Piracy Act that roiled Internet freedom activists. And, as Forbes’ Woollacoot points out, anti-piracy legislation still looms as a possibility:
Last week, for example, the US Commerce Department proposed to Congress that certain provisions of the Stop Online Piracy Act—defeated last year—be revived. One of these covers the sharing of “a performance or display of the work”—wording that could easily apply to YouTube covers. Google staunchly opposed SOPA at the time, and is no doubt dreading the possibility of having to fight those battles all over again.
If that theory is correct—that Google’s aiming to show policy makers that there’s no legislation needed here—then it makes a little bit more sense that this report reads like a political position paper, one that argues that the powerful companies on both sides of this issue are working out the right policies on their own. And that there’s no need for Congress to stick its fat little fingers into this issue again.
Disclosure: CJR has received funding from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to cover intellectual-property issues, but the organization has no influence on the content.