Last Friday, Google released an updated report on how it combats copyright infringement on the Web. One of the issues that much of the press has focused on is the fact that Google tweaked its search algorithm to downrank search results from sites that have been the target of valid (as judged by Google) DMCA takedown notices.
As some have noted, this increases the amount of power that a DMCA takedown notice possesses. While a notice is supposed to create a quick way to take infringing material off of a hosted site, the law doesn’t give it any more weight than that. It’s not a finding or a suggestion that the material is infringing; it doesn’t create penalties in itself for the target, and so on.
By building in an effect on the search rankings of a site that is targeted by a takedown, Google is amplifying the power of a notice-sender. Given the long history of takedown notice abuse, that’s not always going to be a good thing.
But some rightsholders want more. In response to the report, the RIAA mentioned “working with Google and other search engines on additional initiatives,” and the MPAA said it was “glad to see Google acknowledging its role in facilitating access to stolen content via search.” A constant refrain from these groups is that things that look like infringing sites should simply vanish from the Web, or from search results entirely, and that search engines like Google can simply make that happen.
But is that exercise of centralized control something that creators should actually want? By pressuring Google to pick and choose more granularly what should appear in its results, the labels and studios are pressing for Google and other intermediaries to exercise more power over the contents of the Internet. After all, if Google is already in control of the Internet—if being off Google is in fact, the same as not being on the Internet—then why shouldn’t it, like a cable company, choose more actively the programming that appears nightly on your computer screen?
Well, no, actually. If the concern is about Google’s centralized power over the Internet, then the solution isn’t to encourage it to exercise that power more granularly. By lobbying Google on its results, the content companies are pressuring it to become more of an editor that dictates what people can and can’t see on the Web.
But in advocating for increased control of the web by intermediaries, the major rightsholders are advocating against their own interests; they, like all of us, are increasingly dependent upon intermediaries, be they search engines or social media platforms, for people to find their stuff; even more fundamentally, the ability of people to actually access the stuff depends upon ISPs or cable companies (and, these days, they’re usually the same companies).
Making the Internet more like a cable company is the worst thing the content companies can do for themselves. While they may be more familiar with a model of centralized control, they’re only now seeing how that intermediary control can shape their entire interaction with their audiences. The leverage that cable companies can exert over content producers is immense (look at how long it’s taken for HBO to be bold enough to propose a stand-alone online service) and that leverage is now being exercised by the same companies in their role as ISPs. That may work to the larger rightsholders’ benefit so far (certainly the ones that are subsidiaries of cable companies), but it leaves them at the intermediaries’ mercy.
The amount of gatekeeper control been far less present in Internet content itself, as opposed to Internet access, but that increased control and centralization is something that can also nudge consumers along to particular outlets. And celebrating an increase in control that those intermediaries exercise over content may seem far more ironic in the future.
Image Credit: Flickr User David Whelan