About 25 years ago, Google started its business as a simple and straightforward search engine.
The startup quickly captured a dominant market share and branched out into other businesses, including online advertising and video streaming.
Google is now a leading player in all of these markets. This brings in annual revenues of hundreds of billions of dollars, an amount that continues to grow at a rapid rate. At the same time, however, complaints from copyright owners have also increased.
To address these complaints, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has implemented a wide variety of complementary anti-piracy measures. An overview of these technologies was recently shared with the US Copyright Office, which revealed some things we weren’t aware of.
The submission (pdf) is part of the Copyright Office’s investigation of technological copyright protection measures, which could be used as input for a new and improved version of the DMCA.
According to Google, there is no need for new legislation. The company points out that it is already taking extensive voluntary measures to combat piracy and promote a healthy internet.
Punish piracy research before release
This arsenal of anti-piracy measures includes demoting pirate sites in search results. Google started doing this ten years ago. This basically means that if Google receives a high number of takedown requests for a particular domain name, other results from the same site are also downgraded.
This system has been optimized over the years. For example, Google can now detect if a site is moving to a new domain name so that downgrade signals are carried over.
A DMCA takedown feature that is new to us is that rightsholders can now indicate whether reported content is unreleased or still in theaters. When this is the case, Google can take even stricter measures.
“[W]We have added an “still live/preview” tag for DMCA notices involving this category of content to improve the search demotion signal,” Google writes.
We’re guessing this “pre-release” flag will result in a tougher downgrade penalty, but Google doesn’t provide further details on this.
Another search-related metric that is new to us relates to Google’s advertising activities. When the company receives a takedown notice for an infringing URL in its search engine, the response doesn’t stop there.
If the reported site contains Google ads, these will be automatically disabled at the same time. At the same time, searches, where the reported URL appeared, will also be removed from ads.
“When a URL is removed from search following a DMCA notice, all Google ads served on that page are automatically disabled. We also won’t show ads on search that link to removed pages,” Google writes.
It’s interesting how a targeted takedown notice on search results automatically affects another Google product. This certainly amplifies the punishment, but it also leads to more collateral damage for misidentified URLs.
At the same time, one wonders where this integration stops. Could the next step be to block these URLs in the Chrome browser as well?
Fingerprints and hash matching
The overview shared by Google also includes other widely known anti-piracy technologies such as YouTube’s Content ID. This system handles four million complaints a day and handles 98% of all copyright issues on the video platform.
Auto-recognition tools aren’t exclusive to YouTube, though. Google Drive also uses hash matching to prevent public sharing of content previously flagged as infringing.
This hash match, which also takes place on YouTube, ensures that infringing content remains hidden, or at least out of public view.
This technology is not perfect. The hash filter recently flagged text files containing only a 0 or a 1 as copyright infringement. And it looks like macOS ‘.DS_Store’ files are erroneously flagged as well.
It’s safe to say that Google finds itself in a difficult position. The company must find a balance between helping rightsholders and satisfying its customers. Most people are fine with infringing content being removed as long as it is done without collateral damage. And in recent experience, that’s easier said than done.
Public aversion to automated takedown tools also emerged from the Copyright Office consultation. This triggered thousands of responses from the public, many of which took a critical stance towards download filters and similar technologies.