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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Google Begins Soft Censorship Of Arbitrary Piracy-Related Queries

The efforts of media companies to quash online piracy are a bit like someone trying to put out a forest fire with a wet noodle. The latest pathetic flail comes in the form of coercing Google into censoring its results for some search terms. A number of words will no longer be autocompleted or trigger an instant search, among them the interesting and perfectly legal “bittorrent.”

It’s a new high for antipiracy theater, because you can of course still search for the terms by hitting enter, and get the same results as before, including direct links to torrent files hosted on well-known indexers. The move will accomplish two things, though: first, it will damage consumer trust of a company whose services are ostensibly objective, and second, it confirms for the hundredth time how quixotic and misguided the efforts of the MPAA et al. are in every action they take.

The actual censorship (I use the word lightly) is a joke. A leakier sieve than this was never wrought. As of this writing, “Bittorrent” is blocked, but “torrent” is not, and while some popular cyber lockers are on the blacklist (Rapidshare, Megaupload), others aren’t (, Hotfile). As far as preventing piracy, the policy is worthless — incompetent. I have no doubt that this list was put together by the media companies, because Google would have done a far better job of doing it. The team responsible for executing this probably lost more time to derisive laughter than long lunches.

As for the damage it does to Google’s reputation, it’s really nothing that wary web users weren’t already aware of. The algorithm and Google’s results have always been at best pseudo-objective, and Google has made these kinds of gun-jumping censorship mistakes before. But when word gets out to the millions of people who don’t care about DMCA requests and cyber lockers that Google is allowing music industry officials in between them and their search results, there may be… well, let’s be honest, there will be a small ripple of outrage, then people will forget. But a reputation as a search-broker for big business isn’t what Google wants. Blocking a few dirty (yet very common) words is tolerated as it protects our sensitive children, who know nothing of such things, but this? Not so much.

Of course, the practical effects of this move will be utterly nil. The companies and websites being soft-blocked are livid, but the media industry wants nothing to do with them anyway, and Google holds all the cards, so there’s not much the offended parties can do.

Will Google expand the blacklist? Will the terms ever be hard-blocked? I’m guessing that the media companies expended a lot of time and capital just getting this non-result, so I doubt future changes will be soon or serious. Google can plausibly demur on broader censorship, calling this little blacklist a gesture of good will and referring the MPAA and RIAA to the allegedly infringing sites themselves.

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