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YouTube escapes Google's piracy site smackdown

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Analysis Google has admitted its own YouTube operation will not be affected by algorithm changes designed to demote pirate sites.

Google announced the proposed changes on Friday in the hope of fending off new legislation designed to make it act more responsibly. From this week Google will modify its search results so that websites are ranked based on the number of valid requests received to remove copyrighted material, among other factors.

Before the algorithm adjustment, Google's search engine rewarded the unscrupulous and punished the innocent. Rights holders were obliged to engage in a game of Whack-a-Mole with pirate sites, and Google received over a million infringement notifications a week. As most copyright holders are individuals or tiny businesses, who can ill-afford the overhead of chasing down pirates, this is a thankless and financially crippling exercise.

As the BBC highlighted recently, the tech blogosphere's characterisation of "Big Content" or the "MAFFIA" doesn't reflect reality. As smaller players and independents withdraw from the digital economy, the big business that remains is simply getting bigger.

"Music fans may find that an industry where [UK hip-hop label] Son Records can't make a living is not quite what they wanted," concluded Rory Cellan-Jones.

Creators' rights groups want the Do No Evil corporation to demonstrate some corporate social responsibility. For its search results, Google already acts as judge and jury, and can make entire continents disappear from the world wide web.

Arguably, it already actively adjusts the search results subjectively: Google News filters its feed so that critical stories, such as (say) this one, disappear from view within minutes. The rights' groups want Google to demote infringing links, to give legitimate digital content businesses a chance.

Yet the financial incentives are tempting. Google profits by selling advertising against pages pointing to the pirate sites, and the company is reluctant to halt business even when warned that it's acting illegally. Last year Google settled a criminal investigation by paying a $500m fine after ignoring repeated notifications.

"We’re treating YouTube like any other site in search rankings," a Google spokesbot told Search Engine Land - then adding rather tellingly: "That said, we don’t expect this change to demote results for popular user-generated content sites."

Google paid $1.65bn for YouTube knowing that its success was based on infringement, not user-contributed videos of cats or toddlers, emails subsequently showed. (See Google knew YouTube did evil, but bought it anyway, March 2010.)

So what criteria will Google use to allow YouTube to escape? Google won't say.

This has some fascinating implications. Google gives itself a huge competitive advantage by promoting its own properties over competitors: it gives prominence to Google+ over Facebook, for example. This has already attracted the attention of numerous antitrust investigators. Favouring YouTube is a high-risk strategy. Particularly since the content identification system Google has developed, and implemented, should make the filing of takedown notices redundant.

The ill-fated Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) required Google to remove pirate links, rather than demote them, and this portion of the controversial legislation had wide congressional support. If Google hopes that voluntary action can fend off a repeat of SOPA, it must be seen to implement fairly.

Google is a company at the crossroads. We can see hints that it wants to do the right thing, and grow the internet economy in partnership with creative industries. The old, scofflaw Google simply regards other people's creative material as free filler to sandwich in between its advertisements. But New Google can't seem to leave the Old Google behind, and probably nothing short of a culture change - with new management at the top - will allow it to make the transition. Remember, the fish rots from the head down.

Speaking of which, where is Larry Page? ®

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