The Hubris Behind Google's Demotion of Rap Genius (Guest Post)
Illustration by Gary Neill

Chris Castle is managing parter at Christian L. Castle Attorneys in Austin, Texas.

Google's attack on Rap Genius proves the company can demote websites when it suits the search giant.

Rap Genius recently came in from the cold after topping musician/lecturer David Lowery’s “Undesirable Lyric Website List” in October. To its credit, the site has so far chosen to negotiate lyric licenses with publishers and rejected litigating a tortured “fair use” defense for copyright infringement.

Rap Genius topped any Google results for practically any lyric search string, so the site was very well-known to music fans. That enviable ranking doesn’t seem dissimilar from search results for Isohunt, the Pirate Bay or Kickass Torrents.

Then last month there were reports that Google had “disappeared” Rap Genius by tweaking its search algorithms -- an existential threat to gutsy startups that many have complained of in the past.

So what was the cardinal sin justifying Google in disappearing Rap Genius? Operating without licenses? No, certainly not that. Openly challenging the music industry? No, not that either.

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It would appear Rap Genius did the one thing Google doesn’t permit -- it spoke openly about beating Google at its own game. Rap Genius evidently tricked Google’s search algorithm into ranking it higher than the site should have been absent the manipulation. And for this cheeky violation of Google’s rules -- not a law -- the search giant demonstrated two points in one flex of its dominant muscle.

First, Google does exactly what it has denied doing for years -- bury companies that it doesn’t like. Google is currently denying disappearing challengers before the European Commission (EC) competition commissioner in a heated antitrust investigation.

Also, for years Google has promised creators that it will “demote” the worst unlicensed sites in search results -- sites that are usually ad-supported. Despite Google receiving tens of millions of costly take-down notifications every month, who can tell the difference between the before and after?

EC VP/competition commissioner Joaquin Almunia is investigating Google’s monopoly business practices in Europe. The case has everything to do with companies whose survival depends on “search neutrality” -- fair rankings in Google’s dominant search results. These competitors to Google’s growing number of product lines complain that they often experience the inverse of Rap Genius’ fate -- legitimate companies get a worse ranking than they deserve.

The point is that Google established the rules and Rap Genius apparently hacked them. The punishment? Not a lawsuit from Google’s legion of lawyers, but rather the self-help disappearing remedy -- because that’s how Google rolls.

The principle at work here is simply that Rap Genius offended Google and -- dare I say it -- Google “censored” the site in return. (Rap Genius has since apologized for gaming Google’s search engine in the first place, and this month its links started reappearing in lyric search results.)

This is exactly the behavior that Almunia must weigh in deciding whether to give Google not a first or second chance at an antitrust settlement, but an unprecedented third chance to avoid a government antitrust lawsuit.

Google has claimed for years that it doesn’t profit from piracy, despite driving traffic to pirate sites with Google advertising publisher account numbers. The company acknowledges terminating 46,000 such accounts for piracy violations of its publisher agreements -- 46,000 accounts from which Google presumably received about 40% of the ad revenue prior to termination -- revenue that apparently also was disappeared. And these are just the accounts we know about.

This is why the creative community asks Google to demote pirate sites in search results -- to do to unlicensed pirate sites what Google just did to Rap Genius, which has begun negotiating licenses. Google’s response? No measurable change for several years.

For all its bluster, Rap Genius has demonstrated to Almunia that Google disappears legitimate companies it doesn’t like, and has shown creators that Google is perfectly capable of demoting any site. And Google has shown once again that nothing says Internet freedom like getting away with it.

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