Censorship! Thought police! Mind control! You can expect to read plenty of overcooked and hysterical blog posts in the wake of the revelation that Google has quietly blocked certain piracy-related terms from its autocomplete and instant functions.
Try it now: Google ‘torrent’. Normally after a few letters autocomplete would kick in and suggest the full word. Now you have to type the whole word yourself. Just think of the seconds of your life that’ll waste. Plus, it’s presumptuous. How does Google know I’m not searching for, say, Torremolinos? I bloody love that place.
It’s easy to over-react to this sort of thing. After all, everyone knows Google are in cahoots with Rupert Murdoch, the Bilderberg Group, and the same shadowy government agencies that put chemicals in jet trails that brainwash us into eating Pringles and watching Glee.
That said, my problem with this algorithm tweak is not that it’s “evil” or “dangerous”. More that it’s… pointless. It won’t work as an anti-piracy measure.
Clearly, Google has come under pressure from the entertainment industry to do something about piracy. The likes of Universal and Sony probably had in mind something bold, such as blocking certain ISPs, or preventing sites like The Pirate Bay from showing up in search results.
They can’t possibly be mollified by this not-even-half measure by Google, which raises more questions than it answers. Such as: can’t wannabe file-sharers just use another search engine? If “torrent” is a toxic term, why stop there? Why not “TV Shack”, or “MediaFire”, or “illegal downloads”, none of which are affected by the filter.
More to the point, if piracy is bad, why not block the sites themselves?
Well, there’s a good reason why not: torrents themselves aren’t illegal, and millions of people use sites like RapidShare perfectly legitimately. Even so, these questions are particularly pressing for those music services, such as We7, who actually pay for their content, and have to compete for search traffic with the bad guys.
“The challenge of being a licensed service like We7 and appearing in search results amidst hundreds of unlicensed ones is immense,” says the company’s SVP Clive Gardiner. “The daily volume of search enquiries is massive, and the current process favours and encourages unlicensed services. The ‘measure’ announced today does nothing and is a futile gesture.”
So what should Google do about music piracy?
“I think Google must work with the content rights holders to recognize who the legitimate licensed services are and to give them some preferential ranking/status in search results. This will at least help shift some of the balance of awareness and usage onto legally licensed services without ruffling any censorship feathers.”
That sounds reasonable to me: play fair and be rewarded with a better page rank. If as a society we believe that piracy is wrong, let’s work out some concrete measures to combat it, not just waggle a wand at it with half-arsed gestures like Google’s autocomplete fudge, or the Digital Economy Act, which makes file-sharing a theoretical offence but not an actual one.
Hate to sound like a nark, but if piracy is a crime, let’s at least face up to the reality: only Google has the power to stop it.