Today in Washington DC, Google General Counsel Kent Walker testified before the House committee on Intellectual Property, and met with some tough questions which seems to suggest the government wants the search engine giant to take a more proactive role in stopping online piracy.
Walker first testified that Google welcomes any new legislation that aims to cut off the funding source for online piracy, but warned against any changes on the current "notice and takedown" system, which Google believes is working well. And further, Walker warned against any new laws that regulates just what kind of results Google can provide for users worldwide.
In a bi-partisan attack on Google's handling of pirated and counterfeit content, the committee chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), started the questioning asking why Google lists recommend search terms that often suggests phrases to help users find pirated content, and Walker responded by saying that the company has already started filtering certain suggestive terms, but that any terms that still exists are solely because of the popularity of the terms.
Rep. Ben Quayle (R-AZ) then suggested that Google should filter out results, not just search phrase suggestions, for common piracy related search terms. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) then added that Google has been successful in removing child pornography from its search results, and so should apply the same technique to pirated content, once again linking child porn to pirated songs and movies, a favourite tactic of the MPAA/RIAA. Walker responded to these points by saying that pirated content is a lot harder to identify than child pornography, and that input from rightsholders is needed to successfully identify just what should be removed.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fla.) didn't like Walker and Google's excuse, accusing the company of not doing enough to combat the problem of online piracy. "Your auto-fill brings up things that are not appropriate, and are facilitating illegal content and illegal products ... You’re Google. You helped overthrow the head of an entire country in a weekend. To suggest that this [filtering out certain phrases] is too difficult for Google to accomplish … I think it’s more an expression of lack of will," the Congresswoman noted.
The attack also centred on how Google deals with infringement notices when they were sent. The current takedown system, based on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, allows copyright holders to file notices of infringement, and for Google to react by taking down the infringing content. Google says they have streamlined the process to ensure illegal content is removed within 24 hours of any notice. However, this was deemed not good enough by Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), saying that 24 hours, and even seconds, may be too long. "Google has said it will do takedowns within 24 hours - but I do notice that the searches happen within seconds," Congressman Berman added.
It looks like Google will be forced by the government to at least change its auto-fill suggestion system, or even start filtering search results.
Other notables that testified includes John Morton, Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), who testified to the success of "Operation In Our Sites", which was a joint operation with the MPAA/RIAA and took down more than 100 websites suspected of providing infringing and counterfeit content.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) was one of the few present to challenge the current actions, warning of the consequences of operations like "In Our Sites", when similar excuses (of stopping piracy) has been used by governments overseas to clamp down on freedom of speech. She then asked where was the checks and balances in taking down websites without the court being able to hear the other side of the story, from the website operators. "Right now, this is an ex parte communication. You go to a magistrate, you say what you think - there’s nobody on the other side saying what they think. You get the order ... you take it down. What constraint is there on you?" questioned Congresswoman Lofgren.
ICE Director Morton argued that probably cause had to be demonstrated before seizures could take place, and that the seized website's owners can lodge a challenge of the seizure after the fact. But the New York Times has already reported on cases where defendants were not able to access any paperwork on the seizures even days after the event, and so had difficult lodging any kind of legal defence. And when the paperwork was made available weeks later, tech website Ars Technica examined the legal documents and found many of the stated facts to be questionable, and others copy pasted straight from MPAA/RIAA press releases.
The others that testified include Go Daddy's Christine Jones, who felt that the Internet industry, including Google, could do more to stop infringement. First Amendment expert Floyd Abrams testified that there was no First Amendment issues with taking down websites that are heavily feature infringing content.
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