It's Google's Web, we just search in it

Google's new algorithm targets torrents sites -- and opens the door to bogus copyright claims. Chalk one up for content cartel!

Seeking out copyrighted songs and videos on your favorite torrent sites? You may have to look a little harder, thanks to Google.

Late last week Google announced it would penalize sites accused of copyright violations by dropping them in search results. The primary beneficiaries of this move: music companies, Microsoft, and the porn industry. The primary victims? Torrent search engines and content sites not owned by Google.

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In a blog post innocently titled "An update to our search algorithms," Google SVP Amit Singhal announced the company was going all in with copyright holders by "taking into account a new signal in our rankings: the number of valid copyright removal notices we receive for any given site."

Sites that receive a high number of takedown notices -- like FilesTube, ExtraTorrent, and TorrentHound -- will drop in search results; how much lower remains to be seen. What constitutes a "valid" request? That seems to be largely determined by the copyright holders themselves, per Singhal:

Only copyright holders know if something is authorized, and only courts can decide if a copyright has been infringed; Google cannot determine whether a particular webpage does or does not violate copyright law. So while this new signal will influence the ranking of some search results, we won't be removing any pages from search results unless we receive a valid copyright removal notice from the rights owner.

Sites that have been wrongly accused of copyright violations and other crimes -- there have been more than a few over the years -- can file a counterclaim, but Google is mum as to how that might affect their ranking in search results.

Remember, too, that Google is only counting complaints lodged with Google. If you own a content site and your biggest competitor spams Google with removal requests naming your URLs but doesn't send the removal requests to you, how will you know? Will Google notify you, or will your site just stop showing up on the first page of search results? As Public Knowledge blogger John Bergmayer notes, Google's new policy could actually encourage more companies to file bogus removal requests.

One site that won't be affected by this new "signal" is Google's own YouTube. It works on a different reporting system than the one used for other DMCA takedowns and isn't penalized by the new rules. As Dana Carvey's Church Lady might have said, how convenient.

According to Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan, Google will also extend the YouTube exception to other popular sites like Facebook, Twitter, and IMDB, though exactly how it's going to do this is extremely vague, to put it mildly.

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