Search giant Google faces criticism that it offers insufficient protection to copyright holders and that people can exploit its policy on copyright violators. Is more transparency the answer?
Copyright issues have earned Google much criticism as the search engine operator has grown. Now the Internet giant aims to document more openly how it protects the rights of artists, authors and others against copyright violations as well as what Google is doing against online piracy. Additionally, the company also faces accusations that its search engine helps itself to reports from news agencies without compensating them in return.
Both charges touch on copyright law but implicate the company in very different ways.
The fight against piracy
Last year, Google removed more than five million bits of content, websites and web addresses from its various platforms on the basis of suspected copyright infringement. That is according to a statement Google published near the end of May in its blog, which also said that the company receives an average of 1.2 million requests per month regarding possible copyright violations.
The blog post is one way in which the search engine has responded to claims that it is not doing enough to prevent the spread of illegal copies of content online.
Accomplices and culprits
When it comes to ways of illegally copying data, Google is never the culprit but can be the accomplice, said Cologne-based media and copyright law specialist Christian Solmecke. "Fundamentally, Google never commits copyright violations, but it does open up the door for those wishing to do so themselves," Solmecke said.
Concretely, that means that Google makes it easier to find Internet platforms encouraging or enabling illegal copies of music, texts or videos to spread.
Another category of Internet sites that raises questions are pages with potentially dangerous content like Nazi web portals. Those without direct contact to right-wing extremism can use Google to find propaganda pages or information on topics like building bombs. If Google deletes such links, it becomes harder for extremist sites to be discovered in the first place.
Google says it removes 97 percent of the content reported as a copyright violation. But Solmecke points out that such deletions filter out many items that should be accessible. His recommendation is that Google become more transparent with selecting links for deletion, helping people to determine whether the company is acting arbitrarily or not.
More transparency would help agrees web specialist Constanze Kurz of the Chaos Computer Club, a long-standing association of hackers based in Germany that has undertaken consumer advocacy projects and informational campaigns.
"Whether copyright violations have occurred in these cases was never determined by a court, and they never result in lawsuits. It's a process in which Google reacts on demand - partly due to the sheer number of complaints it gets. We're not talking about faxes or paper here but about a form of electronic mediation," Kurz said.
The lack of external scrutiny can open the door to informers who want to exploit Google's approach to copyright violation reports in order to damage others.
Kurz believes it is difficult to judge whether Google's strategy is ultimately right or wrong.
"But the disadvantages that result from blocking such a high amount of content are probably greater than the advantages. It's not just that there is content being blocked that shouldn't be; there are also lots of cases where it really should be up to a court to decide if a copyright violation has occurred. These borderline cases come up a lot," she said.
German news outlets against Google
EU competition commissioner Joaquin Almunia
A current dispute between the European Commission and Google deals not with illegal websites that can be found via Google. Instead, the European Commission has suggested that the Internet concern gives preference to its own pages in searches, potentially disadvantaging competitors along the way.
German and Austrian news associations have also accused Google of using their reports for its Google News service without compensating the associations from its ad-based revenue. But current legislation favors Google, says lawyer Christian Solmecke.
"It's the case that headlines of news stories as well as the first two sentences - so-called snippets - are not protected under our copyright laws. And that is what Google News uses," Solmecke said.
German copyright law provides protection only for creative work, so the question is whether news snippets can fall under this designation.
"Publishers and newspaper argue that they are the ones who have made certain topics topical by doing research and showing that a story is relevant to readers. They believe that should qualify as being worth of protection."
Quid pro quo
Constance Kurz views the discussion about Google's use of news items as dishonest and uniquely German. In other countries, it would not be an issue, she said, adding, "It's a quid pro quo situation. Google just collects the articles and then posts them while naming the source. Many newspapers that put their content online get half of their readers by way of Google News."
Kurz argues further that if Google were to stop its news service due to a law requiring payment, the newspapers themselves would be the ones to suffer.
As news outlets and others increasingly embrace digital publishing, a new payment model may be in order. Kurz favors proposed micropayment systems in which each Internet user could quickly and conveniently decide with the click of a button whether to support a certain piece of music, film or text. By clicking once, a small amount of money would go to the author.
Micropayment is not about doing away with copyright entirely, Kurz stressed, saying, "It's about a more fair way of paying and dealing with the fact that we are soon going to be living in a thoroughly digitized world."
Author: Günther Birkenstock / gsw
Editor: Neil King