Google vs. the Pirates: MPs Lay the Smackdown, But is it Google's Problem?

By Gerald Lynch on at

Search giant Google has once again found itself at the centre of a row over what UK MPs perceive as the company's softly-softly approach to web pirates. But is the ongoing war on piracy really Google's problem? There's a bit of buck-passing going on here I think, with the real problems being overlooked...

Tory MP John Whittingdale, chairman of the Commons culture, media and sport select committee has stated in a report published today that his fellow MPs are "unimpressed by Google's continued failure to stop directing consumers to illegal, copyright infringing material on the flimsy excuse that some of the sites may also host some legal content."

"The continuing promotion of illegal content through search engines is simply unacceptable, and efforts to stop it have so far been derisory," he continued.

But Google hasn't been sitting idly by, letting this happen. In response to the report, it announced that over 20 million links to pirated content have been removed from the search engine in the last month alone, and that it moves to take down any illegal links as soon as it receives word on them. However, that's not been enough to sate the spleen of MPs pointing to new BPI data showing that around 60 per cent of the top 10 sites in a Google search for stars such as Lady Gaga actually return pirated materials.

Google of course is in a tricky position here. On the one hand, it is the go-to service for finding anything and everything on the web, legal or not -- whether that's the intention of its search engine or otherwise. It's an inevitable side-effect of its goal to trawl and index everything that's ever published to the web. With so much being published, there's bound to be something dodgy that slips through the net. And there will always be people ready to exploit that. Take away the ability to hunt down pirated material from Google and the search engine's illegal downloaders will inevitably turn elsewhere, potentially even rocking their faith in the engine's abilities when searching for totally innocent materials, while there will be tens of enterprising websites ready to fill the gap left by Google's newly-puritanical stance.

On the other hand, well, it's piracy, a crime as inexcusable as any. The UK's exporting industries are thinning out as it is, and the one area we consistently do well with is our creative exports. Think Danny Boyle or Adele, picking up gongs around the globe, while each has seen rampant piracy of their work knocking off a substantial chunk of the money that would have gone back into their respective industries. That's without considering video games, a once thriving British export that now sees its brightest talent heading off to other shores in part at least (we'll skim over the issue of tax breaks for the moment) due to the loss of revenues piracy causes. It's understandable that MPs, slap bang in the middle of a recession, will be under pressure to protect the few lucrative exports that we have, especially when it's a multi-billion dollar American company in-part facilitating their downfall.

And it's not as if Google doesn't have its own commercial interests to consider here. Sure, Google Music and Google Play Movies & TV play second fiddle to Apple's iTunes when it comes to making money from the legal distribution of media. But would iTunes be the leader in what is effectively a one-horse race if pirates faced a stiffer challenge when grabbing illegally distributed materials? Perhaps not.

If Google is genuinely doing all that it can, is it unfair it's being made the scapegoat here? That's what is being implied by the likes of Vince Cable, who has been campaigning for over a decade to have the maximum custodial sentence for piracy to rise substantially. Policing the web may be like policing the Wild West, where examples must be made for a lesson to be learnt.

The focus then surely should be on educating the pirates and the media distributors equally. Pirates: if you want to keep listening to new bands and seeing top-quality Hollywood blockbusters, put a little money back in every once in a while. Media companies: a recession means your audience suffers just as much as you do. Give the masses what they want, when they want it, and at an affordable price. Netflix and Spotify have got this right, and the rest of you can too.