For a long time now the movie and TV production industry has been lobbying governments to encourage them to do something about piracy. In the UK, the last few years have seen a sudden push to combat the perceived problem of online piracy. The UK had been lagging behind places like France and the US, which already have three strikes and you’re out systems in place. Those systems allow internet service providers (ISPs) to warn and then disconnect repeat copyright offenders.
On 17 January 2017, this all changed, and UK ISPs started sending out warning letters to pirates. At the moment, those warnings are educational in nature, and no strikes system nor other penalty has been put in place. In addition, UK citizens appear to only be targeted with warnings if they use P2P file sharing (torrenting). Now, however, news has emerged that the UK’s Intellectual Property Office (IPO) may have managed to strike a deal with Google (and other large-scale search engines) that threatens to change the face of the internet.
UK Piracy Battle
It all started back in 2009, when a study carried out by Harris Interactive for the British Phonographic Industry, discovered that 29% of Brits use peer to peer (P2P) file sharing networks. Since then, trends have tended to make torrenting less prolific than it was eight years ago (see below). The results of the survey, however, were seen as somewhat shameful by the UK government, which has since been much more willing to work with content producers to attempt to curb the issue.
For a long time, search engines (who felt it was their job to provide access to an unbiased search result of web pages) refused to be forced to censor results to exclude pirated content. Despite this, Google did at times concede by taking measures (pdf) to help curb piracy. Copyright holders, however, were still discontent with the likes of Google, Yahoo, and Bing, for not tackling the problem head on.
Too Much Pressure
For Google, in the last year, the problem took on a new magnitude. The tech giant received a staggering one billion takedown requests. This is a massive onslaught of requests – bigger than it had ever experienced before – and is becoming too problematic and costly for Google to deal with. The result is that Google has become more amenable to the idea of influencing search results, a change that it seems the UK IPO has jumped on.
In addition, UK parliament has been vocal about its intention to pass legislation that would force search engines to do more about piracy. Seeing the coming pressure as almost inevitable, search engines have been left with little room to maneuver, forcing them to come to the table to discuss and reach this voluntary agreement. Commenting on the work that the UK has been involved in, Baroness Buscombe said,
“Since the idea was last discussed in [parliament], Intellectual Property Office officials have chaired a further round-table meeting between search engines and representatives of the creative industries.”
Secret Meeting Success
The meetings have been taking place largely in secret, well out of the reach of public influence. The bad news is that, thanks to the mediating efforts of the UK IPO, the entertainment industry and the search giants appear to have come to an agreement. The result? From June, search results in the UK will seriously de-prioritize websites that contain copyrighted content. This will make it harder for people to stumble across easy ways to watch pirated content.
In the UK, ISPs already block many of those websites. However, thanks to circumvention technologies like virtual private networks, tech-savvy people are able to get around those restrictions to regain access to the blocked websites. Now, as an extra blockade, those websites won’t appear as frequently – or as high up – in search results, as they used to. This is content censorship of the kind that ten years ago would have seemed unimaginable in such an (allegedly) free, influential, and forward-thinking Western nation.
Not the Best Way
What is sad, is that trends clearly demonstrate that censorship is a poor way to tackle piracy. In reality, the entertainment industry ought to sort out its own problem rather than lobby governments and technology giants to do its dirty work. Services like Netflix, which provide the right service at the right price, have become extremely successful. Those types of services prove that the best way to properly manage piracy is to make content available legally in a way that makes piracy obsolete.
Music consumption is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Due to legal options, music piracy has been going down for years. Once Napster was big news, but these days iTunes, Spotify, and other services are organically wiping out the need to pirate music. In a very similar way, the likes of Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Prime are doing the same thing. Sadly, aging content producers who are still caught up in the manufacturing paradigm (as opposed to digital media) fail to comprehend this. They also fail to understand that pirates are more effective than costly adverts and billboards for successfully advertising their content.
So, what does the new agreement really mean? The outcome of this decision may affect more than just the UK market. As soon as the UK sets this precedent, by making Google de-prioritize piracy websites, content producers will be able to say, “if you can do it in the UK you can do it everywhere.” As such, it seems likely that slowly but surely all the major search engines will begin to toe the entertainment industry’s line around the world.
For tech-savvy people this won’t mean much. Websites like Reddit will still provide information about the locations of piracy websites, and although they won’t appear on the front end of search results, they will still be somewhere online waiting to be found. “Well that’s fine then,” I hear you say, “stop fear mongering.” However, the question of affecting search results because of a corporation’s desires goes deeper than piracy. Like the question of net neutrality itself, censoring results is a slippery slope: once one thing can be censored, there is always a danger that something else could be.
Are Alternative Search Engines an Option?
Some might argue that people will simply turn to alternative search engines like DuckDuckGo and ixquick (whose StartPage has been endorsed by Edward Snowden). However, the sad truth is that although those websites are more private and don’t filter results (by targeting users specifically using cookies), they do at times rely on the likes of Bing, Yahoo, and Google to get their results. As such, this decision could also affect those websites’ ability to deliver meaningful results.
I asked ixquick if the firm is concerned that the new UK search engine agreement (and possible future legislation) could negatively affect StartPage’s ability to provide useful alternative results to its users. ixquick is known to leverage Google, so it is likely to affect its results. However, for now, the firm told me that it isn’t worried. ixquick told me that it always encourages its users, “to contact us if they cannot access information they should be able to access using one of our search engines.” Furthermore, the firm told me that,
“StartPage and StartPage by Ixquick currently provide unfiltered and uncensored Google search results in privacy. Our Ixquick.eu search engine currently provides equally private uncensored search results drawn from multiple sources, including Gigablast and Yandex (but not Google or Yahoo).”
In addition, Liz McIntyre from ixquick said that, “if we identify unconscionable censorship by a results provider, we will take steps to address it at that time.” This is good news, and means that alternative search engines could indeed gain in popularity should the most popular ones fall from grace. Only time will tell.
Opinions are the writer’s own.
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