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Google Refuses to Remove Whole Sites for Copyright Violations

Imagine you’re a recording artist. You find a website that offers a full download of your latest album, free of charge. The problem is, you never game them permission to use your album and you never get a penny of their advertising revenue. So you file a takedown request with Google, and pretty soon the page with the illegal download link is gone—it may still be out there, but no one can ever find it with a Google search.

Doesn’t it seem like your problem is solved?

Some people say no. Google has recently faced pressure from groups like the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to take down entire websites, not just individual pages, if someone has posted pirated material somewhere on the site. Google said no.

Take It All Down

Demanding whole-site removal is nothing new for anti-piracy groups. Lately, however, they’ve stepped up the pressure. The MPAA emphasized whole-site measures in its latest recommendations to US copyright enforcers. The idea behind these recommendations is that many sites host pirated material repeatedly, or serve as clearinghouses for users to exchange pirated files. In those cases, cracking down on individual pages is ineffective.

There is also a financial incentive behind the request. Currently, sites like Google require documentation to de-index (stop showing) any page. It takes time and money for the MPAA, or any  copyright holder, to put together that documentation on a case by case basis. But the documentation also helps ensure that these requests are not frivolous and that only actually pirated material is suppressed.

Google takes a dim view of the MPAA’s reasoning, and responded with a 39-page letter denouncing the request.

Google’s Firm “No”

The Google letter offers a detailed rebuttal to the idea of whole-site removal, but it rests on two main points:

  1. “Unfortunately, whole-site removal is ineffective and can easily result in censorship of lawful material.”While there may be some sites that exist only for pirates, many others only experience sporadic or unintentional copyright violation. The effective solution is to penalize those pages, posts or users who commit the violation and not censor the entire site.Tumblr is a good example. The social site hosts over 108 million blogs, run by 30-50 million active users. If the MPAA’s recommendations went through, every single one of them could disappear for one user’s violation.
  2. “Whole-site removal would simply drive piracy to new domains, legitimate sites, and social networks.” This is perhaps the argument the MPAA should pay the most attention to. Google is an active combatant in the war against pirates, often more so than the copyright holders themselves. They have a strong interest in stomping out piracy online. And they’re saying whole-site removal would make that harder to do.That’s because users tend to flock to a (relatively) small number of well-known sites to trade pirated material. At present, it’s easy to check those sites for your intellectual property, file a DMCA takedown request, and get Google to penalize the site. Pirates keep coming back over and over where it’s easy to catch them.If those entire sites were taken down, enforcement would become much harder. Pirates would move constantly to new sites and use them only until they too were removed. Instead of playing whack-a-mole—a game that’s at least winnable—copyright holders would be on a goose chase.

Google also emphasized that they are making copyright enforcement more efficient without the cudgel of whole-site removal. They recently added a sort of fast-track version of their copyright removal process, for trusted copyright holders who have proven themselves to be above-board in the past. That means groups like the RIAA and MPAA.

Will the US government accept Google’s reasoning, or come down on the side of heavy-handed removals? There’s no way to tell at this point, but one thing is sure: a world where one rogue user can get your whole site taken down is a world where it’s very difficult to do business.