"This ranking change should help users find legitimate, quality… (Karen Bleier / AFP/GettyImages…)
Hoping to mollify its entertainment industry critics,Google Inc.is tweaking its search engine to penalize websites suspected of hosting pirated music, videos, games and other copyrighted content.
The change was viewed as a concession to movie studios, music labels and television companies that have tried to lobby, cajole and, in some cases, sue Google into helping them shut down online piracy.
In most of these cases, Google has argued that its role is to help consumers find information they need on the Web, not to police Internet piracy.
"Google wants to do something to show Hollywood that it's not a big giant pirate monster," said Danny Sullivan, editor in chief of SearchEngineLand.com. "Much of that perception of Google is not deserved. On the other hand, it's embarrassingly easy for people to use Google to find pirated content online."
In a blog post on the company's website, Google explained the changes it plans to make to its search algorithm, which determines what results it provides to people using its popular search engine.
"Starting next week, we will begin taking into account a new signal in our rankings: the number of valid copyright removal notices we receive for any given site," wrote Amit Singhal, Google's senior vice president of engineering.
"Sites with high numbers of removal notices may appear lower in our results. This ranking change should help users find legitimate, quality sources of content more easily — whether it's a song previewed on NPR's music website, a TV show on Hulu or new music streamed from Spotify," he wrote.
Singhal said that Google is deluged with notices from copyright holders such as music labels and movie studios alerting it to sites they believe contain pirated content. In the last 30 days, it processed requests to flag 4.3 million links to such websites, he said, more than the company received in all of 2009.
Groups representing the movie and music companies were quick to laud Google. Said the Recording Industry Assn. of America: "This change is an important step in the right direction — a step we've been urging Google to take for a long time — and we commend the company for its action."
The Motion Picture Assn. of America, which had been sharply at odds with Google over its efforts to block controversial anti-piracy legislation, was also complimentary, though far more guarded.
"We are optimistic that Google's actions will help steer consumers to the myriad legitimate ways for them to access movies and TV shows online, and away from the rogue cyberlockers, peer-to-peer sites and other outlaw enterprises," said Michael O'Leary, MPAA's senior executive vice president for global policy.
"We will be watching this development closely — the devil is always in the details — and look forward to Google taking further steps to ensure that its services favor legitimate businesses and creators, not thieves."
Google over the years has struggled to balance what it regards as a need for an open and unrestricted Internet with pressure from content holders to censure sites that promote piracy. Friday's move, though welcomed by movie studios and music labels, displeased advocates who favor fewer restrictions.
"What's troubling about this is the process is completely opaque," said Julie Samuels, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "We don't know how Google is doing this, which makes it very difficult to monitor."
John Bergmeyer, an attorney for Public Knowledge, expressed concern that Google's changes could unintentionally penalize sites that are innocent of copyright violations. Such sites could include services that let users upload and share content, such as Google's own YouTube or Yahoo's Flickr. Though users may violate copyrights by uploading, say, a Lady Gaga album, the sites themselves may be perfectly within the law if they have certain measures in place to flag and remove the album.
"If Google's new policy helps users find legitimate sources of content, protects the valid interests of copyright holders and doesn't penalize lawful sites, then it's a win all around," he said. "But any new system such as this has potential dangers and unintended consequences, and can be abused."
Times staff writer Richard Verrier contributed to this report.