Illegal Downloading: What Role do Search Engines Play in Piracy?

The following data may surprise you: 35% of the traffic to piracy sites come from a search engine, in second place after direct traffic (42%).

MUSO, a tech company specialized in the protection of creative industries’ content, arrived at these percentages in its 2016 MUSO Global Piracy Report after having analyzed 191 billion piracy site visits worldwide.

US-based advertising agency Anatomy Media also establishes a link between search engine results and hacking activities. As part of an extensive report on the content consumption and discovery patterns of young American adults (aged 18–26), the agency asked millennials with different consumption habits—in order to circumvent the algorithmic filter bubble—to conduct searches based on the expression “watch [series title]”.

Of the 600 results obtained, 43% led directly to the broadcasting rights holder’s website, whereas 42% led to illegal downloading sites.

Hacking: what is Google’s responsibility?

Certain actors, including the powerful MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America), estimate that Google, i.e., the planet’s most widely used search engine, is in part responsible for piracy and should do everything it can to eradicate this plague.

It is an issue that the Supreme Court of Canada recently examined, in Google Inc. v. Equustek Solutions Inc. Equustek, a tech company based in British Columbia, had accused one of its distributors of using its intellectual property to develop a competing product sold on the Internet.

Indeed, the distributor had left British Columbia and pursued its operations from an unknown location. It sold the product in question on its websites, thereby violating several court orders.

Equustek had replied by filing an injunction ordering Google to stop listing and referencing all of the distributor’s websites on a global scale. Google tried to appeal the injunction all the way up to Supreme Court, but the latter upheld the interlocutory injunction last June.

While acknowledging that Equustek had suffered irreparable prejudice and that its search engine had inadvertently facilitated the prejudice by directing buyers directly to the distributor’s websites, Google believed it should not be forced to comply with the injunction given its third-party status.

Google challenged the extraterritorial scope of the order and raised the spectre of an infringement of the freedom of expression given the precedent that such a decision could set. On July 24, 2017, the company addressed the United States District Court for the Northern District of California to have the execution of the order blocked in the United States.

“We’re taking this court action to defend the legal principle that one country shouldn’t be able to decide what information people in other countries can access online,” states Google’s David Price to Wired magazine. “Undermining this core principle inevitably leads to a world where internet users are subject to the most restrictive content limitations from every country.”

Moreover, the corporation challenges the claim that its search engine generates the lion’s share of links to pirate sites. It instead claims that it is the addition of terms such as “watch”, “streaming” or “free” to queries that purpose “potentially problematic” links and that such queries are rare.

For example, “Games of Thrones” would have been searched for 784 times more often than “Games of Thrones download”. That being said, a simple search shows that Google’s auto complete function offers the “streaming” option.

A possible solution: do as the piracy sites do

In its report, Anatomy Media sustains that websites offering illegal content make their way among the first results displayed because they meet the search criteria of most consumers. The recipe is the following: provide quick, practical and free access to all of the desired content and thereby feed the algorithm according to certain criteria that have an influence on a page’s ranking, such as the traffic generated by the page and user behaviour.

Anatomy Media recommends that rights holders plan their referencing strategies based on the fact that, regardless of the modifications made periodically by Google to its algorithms, the search engine’s purpose remains constant: to place the consumer at the heart of the process. For Google, it’s all about “Focus on the User”.

“Thus SEO [search engine optimization] isn’t just about the structure of a network’s title tags, back links, meta descriptions, and URLs,” as per the report. “It’s also about the network’s website and its ability to deliver on the viewer’s query.”

Anatomy Media issues another recommendation to rights holders: compare the experience that their site proposes with the experience proposed by pirate sites by analyzing upload speed (beyond four seconds, one user out of four will move on to another page), site design as well as the tags and metadata used.

Tracking the money: an effective strategy?

Another solution that is sometimes suggested to curb piracy consists of “tracking the money”, i.e., reducing or interrupting the revenue generated by websites in violation of copyrights. This strategy targets three economic sectors that indirectly benefit from pirated content: advertising, payment solutions, and search engine providers.

If starving hackers from revenue initially appears to represent an effective solution to eradicate the problem, a report commissioned by Heritage Canada arrives at the conclusion that this strategy will only prove itself effective if it is part of a global strategy:

“[…] copyright piracy is an international problem that requires cross-border cooperation and solutions, particularly with respect to defining CSCI [commercial-scale copyright infringement] activity and identifying perpetrators.”


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