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Google Is Fighting “Game of Thrones” Piracy, but HBO Isn’t Playing Along

“Internet” and “piracy” have become almost synonymous. The rise of high speed internet has made it possible to share videos, images, books and whole movies, with or without the creator’s permission. But whose responsibility is it to fight back—the copyright owners, or the search engines?

That question remains contentious, but Google has stepped up its efforts to crack down on piracy. The exact measures they use (and how well those measure work) are detailed in a full report by Danny Sullivan, using HBO’s Game of Thrones as its case study.

This issue is near to my heart, because when Season 4 debuted last year I was in Guanajuato, Mexico, and I didn’t have HBO. I figured I would just pay a fee and watch the episodes online… easy, right? But at the time, HBO only offered online access through your local cable provider. Since I didn’t have a cable subscription, my only options were to hunt for pirated episodes or wait months till I was back in the States.

(I did the right thing, but perhaps only for fear of malware from the pirate sites.)

Why People Pirate

It turns out that my experience wasn’t unusual. Danny says Game of Thrones is one of the most pirated shows ever, and that’s largely because of how hard it is to get legitimate online access. This seems to be a lesson we learn over and over: most “pirates” would gladly buy the product legally if you just give them an easy online option.

HBO has since addressed this by offering a direct online subscription called HBO Now. Meanwhile, Google has stepped up to take some serious measures of its own. The two companies are working together, but in some ways they’re also working at cross purposes.

A Disconcerted Effort

Here are the main things that Danny found in both Google and HBO’s efforts:

  • Google is doing a good job of excluding most “piratey” search results. They’ve identified suspicious search terms (like watch game of thrones online) and carefully adjusted what sorts of results show up in those searches. That means that most of the time, even if a website exists that offers the pirated content, you won’t be able to find it easily.
  • Google has also tried to direct searchers to legitimate viewing options. For example, the Knowledge Graph sidebar for a search on game of thrones includes a “Watch now” section. That section links to VUDU, Google Play and Amazon where you can buy episodes legally (although only older episodes, not the newest season).
  • HBO is not exactly playing along. They haven’t purchased a link in the “Watch Now” sidebar, so Google doesn’t direct searchers to HBO Now. That’s mystifying. HBO Now is the only place to legally view the most recent episodes, which are the ones people want. In effect, HBO is deflecting potential customers right back to the pirates.
  • Even on HBO’s own website, it’s hard to find HBO Now. Instead, they funnel you toward the old HBO Go service—the complicated one involving your local cable provider. Danny suggests that HBO Now isn’t easy to spot on the landing page, and after looking it over I agree with him.

Role Reversal

Search engines have often argued that they are not responsible for the content people find through them, including pirated content; they’re just a directory of what’s already out there. But Google is doing an admirable job of tamping down access to pirated content without, I think, trampling on anyone’s right to a free and open internet.

Meanwhile, HBO isn’t trying hard to promote its new, legal alternative to bootleg downloads. This could be an intentional choice, if they prefer to service their cable company partners over individual users. But if so, it means they’re shooting their own anti-piracy efforts in the foot.

I find these role reversals fascinating. I, for one, am going to sign up for HBO Now to do my binge-watching. But if a friend found it easier to just download the show illegally, well, I wouldn’t exactly challenge them to trial by combat.