Coming this week, Google will be making what could be a ground breaking step in it's search algorithm. Google will start downranking sites in proportion to the the number of valid copyright removal notices that the site receives. According to Google, "This ranking change should help users find legitimate, quality sources of content more easily". While on the surface, this seems like a good anti-piracy move, I shall explain why I think it could be a major problem.
I had earlier covered some of the problems with the 'personalization' that online giants seem to be doing. That argument was more controversial - essentially claiming that they are not giving people what they want, but rather that they are giving people what Google (for eg) thinks they want (based on their search history) and this limits their information intake and presents a less balanced / less neutral result. I would go further to add that even if they kept giving people what they wanted on a search term, ie, something they're looking up information on, but limiting it to results based on the user's history, this is akin to encouraging a society where views are discouraged from being contradicted and debate and discussion takes a backseat.
However, this new change to algorithms gives rise to an easier argument : that the search engine giant is presenting users what others want them to see and this is inherently a problem. Google emphasizes that it won't remove content unless a valid copyright removal request is received. However, copyright is certainly not a black and white affair. Do you create an algorithm that detects fair use? Or public domain? No, it's not possible. So what about the notices that target content that falls in these categories? And those could still be good-faith mistakes. What about all the bad-faith / reckless notices that MPAA / RIAA have had no hesitation in sending out (including to dead people and a homeless man!)? Also, Google states that they would be taking down sites with high number of removal notices. What about the following (hypothetical) situation: A small site 'swarajshare' which gives out only pirated media but only stores 500 movies -- vs -- vimeo or veoh or viddler or youtube even! They are all massive and certainly store more than 500 movies. But they probably receive 1000s of valid takedown notices. Does n't this now mean that youtube or vimeo would be lower in their search results than swarajshare even when users are not looking for pirated material? And does changing their algorithm the first step onto a slippery slope? Do other search engines now also give in? Does Google start contemplating more such steps to 'stop piracy'? These are all questions that we will probably see answers to in the near future and can only hope that access to knowledge and creativity aren't killed in the guise of protecting content. (On that note, slightly tangential but a here is a thought provoking study on one of the effects of No copyright - though to be clear I am not an advocate of 'no copyright' but rather of more limited copyright protection)
Rohan George puts it aptly when he says "More than anything else, this signals the end of an era when Google's main interest was delivering information and not 'content'".
Some sources speculate that Google could be conceding this change because it needs media companies to keep them in their good books in order for them to successfully build an eco-system around their all-in-one Google Play store. And of course, this certainly seems legal and above-board... but I'm not so sure that restricting access to knowledge unnecessarily is really 'doing no evil'.