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A Change to Google’s Search Algorithm: Another Copyright Issue

As of Monday, August 13, 2012, Google has made a change to its search algorithm downgrading websites that persistently breach copyright laws.  This means that the company will now adjust search results so that websites suspected of copyright infringement will appear further down the list of results links where they will likely receive less traffic.  Google announced the change in a blog post, written by Amit Singhal, Senior Vice President for Engineering. In it he said:

…”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 goes on to say:

“Since we re-booted our copyright removals over two years ago, we’ve been given much more data by copyright owners about infringing content online. In fact, we’re now receiving and processing more copyright removal notices every day than we did in all of 2009—more than 4.3 million URLs in the last 30 days alone. We will now be using this data as a signal in our search rankings.”

The company says that it will only consider valid copyright removal notices received from rights owners, and that it will provide counter notices so those who believe that their content has been removed incorrectly can have it reinstated.  Google already publishes transparency reports disclosing the number of requests they receive from copyright owners and governments, saying it does this to “help inform ongoing discussions about the appropriate scope and authority of content regulation online.”  (See EDUCAUSE blog for further information on these transparency reports.)

Google says its primary reason for the change was to improve the “user experience” in search to direct users to “high-quality” sites.  The plan, however, will not affect popular, user-generated sites like YouTube, Twitter, Amazon, and Facebook.

This change has been controversial.  The move was welcomed by the entertainment industry. Michael O'Leary, Senior Executive Vice President for Global Policy at the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), said in a statement: "We are optimistic that Google's actions will help steer consumers to the myriad legitimate ways for them to access movies and TV shows online, and away from the rogue cyberlockers, peer-to-peer sites and other outlaw enterprises that steal the hard work of creators across the globe."

Opponents, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), point out that a valid “copyright takedown notice” is not proof that a site has been violating copyright.   As EFF notes:

“Takedown requests are nothing more than accusations of copyright infringement. No court or other umpire confirms that the accusations are valid (although copyright owners can be liable for bad-faith accusations). Demoting search results – effectively telling the searcher that these are not the websites you’re looking for – based on accusations alone gives copyright owners one more bit of control over what we see, hear, and read.”

It is worth reiterating that Google is not removing sites from search results at the copyright owners’ requests, as SOPA legislation would have required.  However, it is a change that is worth watching.

EDUCAUSE will continue to monitor and report on this issue.


At least twice recently I've seen stories about the originators of content being hit with takedown notices because someone linked to their content and somehow became the 'rights holder'. One of the cases involved NASA. If this continues I can see original content being demoted so it won't be findable because somebody who copied it will come up higher on the hierarchy. I wonder how much pressure Google got before they agreed to do this.


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