August 27, 2005

Seach Engines Behaving Badly

I was surfing for a new desktop wallpaper to spice up my new computer, when I found a DMCA notice at the bottom of my Google search result.

I guess search engines have been getting a lot of takedown requests from various businesses that claim they are misappropriating their page content, in addition to returning pages that don't have legal usage of the content they provide themselves. The DMCA provides safe harbor provisions to information location tools (like search engines) that comply with takedown notices, but it's not entirely clear whether they would be liable for copyright infringement if they didn't abide by these safe harbors.

So, is Google aiding in copyright infringement? It doesn't seem to me that posting computer-generated links resulting from some search query facilitates or encourages the mighty copyright violation. Most of the complaints don't target the actual content on Google's site, but instead are directed towards user-created content that Google just indexes. So why are people targetting Google to fix the problem? Well, the likelihood of a response is probably higher from Google, at least compared to some Russian pr0n site hosting nude Britney Spears images. Seeing as Google has become the biggest celebrity name as far as web sites and services go, their actions are maybe just a bit more scrutinized by the public than most. The DMCAƂ’s safe harbor provisions protect hosts from monetary liability if they promptly remove allegedly infringing material from their listings, but the provisions leave service providers liable to suit if they refuse these takedown demands. Google may just find it safer (re: cheaper) to remove a challenged site from its listings than risk going to trial to fight it out. Unfortunately, in many cases, removing a site from Google indexing is almost as good as removing it from the Internet entirely.

These takedown complaints are frustrating because they attempt to silence inconvenient speech, using laws that were designed for an entirely different purpose. It's scary how far IP law has become disconnected from its original intention. Mechanisms to protect new ideas are instead used to hinder free speech, and a big threat in all of this is the takedown of many legitimate websites. Additionally, this case is just an example of a larger problem prevalent in our legal system. Legal actions are not always directed towards the wrong-doer, but towards some related path of least resistance. This my friends, is how bad precedent is created, and then we live with these constraints for many, many years.

In other, happier news, Google has now released Google Talk, another bubbly web toy for the world to play with. I think I'll probably stick to Gaim and the occasional Pork for my messaging. I'm getting suffocated by all of this new, trendy Google stuff.

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