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Piracy and Internet Search – The Debate

August 22, 2012

A few weeks ago, Google agreed (after a long period of pressure) to give lower priority in search results to sites that have received take down notices for containing copyrighted content (i.e. piracy sites).  This is actually a pretty interesting debate, whether they should have to do so or not.  Ignoring a few of the intricacies of this particular case (I’m aware of them, but let’s keep it simple), here are the major argument I see on both sides.

1)  Google makes money when you use their search.  They do so indirectly, but there is certainly a profit from search advertising.  If people use Google to find pirated content, then Google is profiting from providing search for (and a connection to) pirated content.  Some argue that this makes them as guilty as a cyberlocker that actually hosts the content, although this is debatable. But it is not debatable that Google has a profit-incentive to link to popular pirated content.

2)  However, Google’s search algorithm is theoretically agnostic (although it is alleged that they prioritize their own products and businesses).  It’s just following the best principles that their search engineers came up with for all searches.  If that puts a piracy site to the top, it’s simply due to an objective search algorithm.  Should we suppress this?

3)  Here’s the real question – does anyone really need Google to find the content that they want?  Do users go to Google just because it’s the easiest way to find the link to the content that they want at, say, The Pirate Bay (oops, better not link to that one!)?  Or at  Or do they really not know that these sites exist, and without Google they would not get to the content?  This is actually an interesting empirical question – after Google has implemented this new prioritization that gives lower priority to piracy sites, will piracy actually go down and sales go up?  Or is this a useless measure?

So far I’ve shown evidence that laws aimed at deterring consumers from filesharing can increase music sales, and I’m about to put out some work showing that shutting down a major cyberlocker increased movie sales.  But I have to admit that in spite of the enormous market share of Google, I’m skeptical that this particular policy change will have any effect.  That said, I’d much rather go with an empirical answer than my gut.


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One Comment
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