Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Google caves to industry pressure--sort of

Due to pressure from industry groups, Google has “secretly” installed a software filter that will prevent certain “keywords” from automatically displaying results via its “autocomplete” and “instant” search mechanisms. This step amounts to little more than a fig-leaf, since last summer Google won a court case brought by Viacom in which the search provider was found not responsible for removing copy-righted material from YouTube; if a person or company wanted copy-righted material removed from YouTube, they had to make a specific request in order that it be done. The search terms being filtered-out are ones that supposedly are used by entities involved in piracy and illegal downloads, such as upload/download sites like Rapidshare, Megaupload and Depositfiles, and torrent sites like Bit Torrent. Admittedly, the filter is far from completely effective, and is mainly aimed at “newbies” completely unfamiliar with internet downloading. For example, if someone who does not know what Rapidshare is, they will not come across the term “accidentally.” You would have to type in the entire word before any “instant” search results are listed. However, it is virtually impossible for any filter to prevent access to anything that is uploaded, short of destroying the Internet as an effective medium for communication and commerce altogether; the only way to effectively stop illegal downloads is to shutdown upload/download sites altogether, but new sites pop-up all the time, and sometimes based in countries that don’t respect copy-right law and are out of the reach of international law. Reality is tough to except, but there has been some effort to make such entities “pay sites” and advertisement-laden in order to reimburse owners of copy-rights.

The music industry claims it is losing millions or billions of dollars from pirating, which may or may not be literally true. I buy a song if I absolutely must have it (I certainly won’t buy a whole album unless it’s a “hits” compilation), but if it is something I can live without, I won’t bother; too much of new music does nothing for me, and I already have most of what I do like converted from old CDs. On the other hand, like my preference for paper-bound books over “e-books,” I’d much rather buy a clean, director-approved DVD than settle for an inferior download, "free" or not; the biggest problem I have with industry group bellyaching is that many “illegal” downloads are material that is impossible to find legally; for example, many films that have never been available on DVD (such as Looking For Mr. Goodbar, The Sterile Cuckoo and Lili) or have been discontinued can sometimes be found via torrent, although usually converted from old VHS tapes; I don’t have the time or patience to avail myself to torrent downloads, since it usually takes days or weeks for large files to download by this method—although unlike other download mechanisms, torrent downloads can be saved and resumed at anytime as long as there are peers and seeds online (or so I have read). In 2009, a Swedish court found the torrent provider The Pirate Bay guilty of allowing serial copy-right infringement, and four of its management team were each sentenced to one year in prison and $900,000 fines; the four were released after an appeal, but this past November a Swedish appeals court reduced the prison sentences but raised their liability. Meanwhile, the website continues to thumb its nose at authority, still conducting its business as usual.

It obviously will take a great deal of time before the Internet is completely tamed, and it may never be, short of eviscerating it to the point of rendering it useless. The genie is out of the bottle, and as the record industry has learned, it costs more to stop illegal downloading than regaining the revenue it believes it has lost because of it; all you have to do is look at the slim pickings on record shelves these day.

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