Digital piracy took center stage again yesterday, when the House Judiciary Intellectual Property Subcommittee held the second part of a two-part hearing entitled "Promoting Investment and Protecting Commerce Online: Legitimate Sites v. Parasites, Part II."
The main event was the testimony of Google general counsel Kent Walker, who aggressively defended Google's commitment to content protection amid a grilling from the congressional representatives who felt the company needs to do more.
Walker pointed to the Content ID system Google built for YouTube, which scans videos as they are uploaded in real-time and identifies which have copyrighted content. He also pointed out Google's decision to remove the Grooveshark music app from the Android Market, no doubt an action taken with the timing of the testimony in mind.
But he stressed that Google did not want to be in the position of having to judge all the content it either hosts or links to on its own.
"If they let us know an item is unauthorized, we take that link out of our search results," Walker said. "We're trying to separate the wheat from the chaff as best as we can."
Yet the panel wanted more from Google. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), chairman of the subcommittee holding the hearings, wondered why Google didn't filter out search terms that suggested users were seeking pirated content. Walker responded that words like "free" don't necessarily constitute piracy.
Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) asked why Google could filter child porn but not stolen music. Walker responded that child porn is easier to identify and filter because there are no legal exceptions the way there are for music.
And Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fla.), had perhaps the most quotable line of the day when grilling Walker on allowing search terms like "knockoff"-"You're Google. You helped overthrow the head of an entire country in a weekend. To suggest that this is too difficult for Google to accomplish… I think it's more an expression of lack of will."
Now to be fair, if someone does a search on "Free Music" Google will naturally list pirated sites first because pirated sites are the ones that offer such music for free. And Google does require more input from the content industry and the government to better help identify what content is infringing and what sites are operating illegally. So it's unfair to lump all this on Google. The music (and other content) industries need to play a role here as well rather than dumping the whole problem on Google's lap and say "fix it."
Yet Google certainly can do more as well. Exactly how much more is something we may soon find out, as one major takeaway from the day is that Chairman Goodlatte said he'd further investigate Google's search index and content takedown policies.
The RIAA, on its blog, praised the efforts Google has taken to date to combat online theft, but still had this to say:
"Google's AdSense program continues to service to illegal sites that offer unauthorized music. Mobile apps on Google's Android platform provide instantaneous access to illegal music files, yet Google frequently chooses not to remove them. And while Google states that it relies upon the content community to let them know what's legal and what's not, it's Google's level of responsiveness after being contacted that causes us continued concerns. In fairness, Google has improved its takedown speeds, but the improvements are more episodic than consistent."