New Algorithm, Old Problems

 By Wakanene Kamau

The issue of music piracy is certainly not new, but, after Google launched an improved search algorithm in August of last year, it was believed to be on it’s way out. In the new algorithm, search rankings began to take into consideration the amount of copyright removal notices a given site had received in its tabulation. In doing so, Google intended users to find legal sources of content more easily. Ideally, by making legal avenues quicker and easier to find, users would able to get content with less fuss and piracy would decrease naturally as a side effect. Futhermore, copyright holders would then have less to complain about. It was a win-win situation. However, we all know that all that glitters is not gold.

Fast forward six months and, in a statement released by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), when compared with the old algorithm “we have found no evidence that Google’s policy has had a demonstrable impact on demoting sites with large amounts of piracy. These sites consistently appear at the top of Google’s search results for popular songs or artists.”

As a result of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), search engines are required to remove links upon request of the right holders who tell the engine the links lead to infringing content. If the engine does not remove the link, it could be liable for infringement.

The data on the matter is certainly convincing, as the statement from the RIAA went on to say,“[w]hatever Google has done, it doesn’t appear to be working.” The following graph produced by the RIAA shows the average percent of time a site for which Google had gotten over 100,000 DMCA removal requests was found among the top 10 search results for 50 pop songs.

Source: RIAA

Bearing in mind that Google itself is a giant media company and its own content hub, Google Play, which sells everything from music to TV shows to magazines, competes alongside authorized download sites such as iTunes and Amazon against pirate sites, why would Google rank highly the sites detrimental to its own business model?

The data and the conclusions that are deduced must be taken with a skeptical eye. The above graph was constructed with the methodology: “For this analysis we performed searches for [artist] [track] mp3 and [artist] [track] download over a period of several weeks starting December 3, 2012” Google’s business algorithm is built on a understanding what people are looking for when they search and then bringing that to them. When someone searches [artist] [track] mp3 and [artist] [track] download, they are clearly looking to download for free, not to buy; thusly the results show pirate sites. The problem with the RIAA’s line of thinking is that they suppose that the reason people pirate music is because they lack alternative methods of acquiring music. Even presented with options to buy the music, those who intend to pirate will pirate. If the methodology looked at, for example, [artist] [track] buy then perhaps the intended demotion of sites that receive DMCA takedown results could be more easily observed.

Perhaps what is most clear from all of this is that the issue of piracy on the web is still far from being solved. The interests of the search engine, the media industry and the will of the people must be weighted in a manner that is reasonable to all sides.  Google’s algorithm change cannot be expected to be a one-size-fits-all fix to the piracy issue. The RIAA, while good intentioned, may have their expectations set too high. At the very least, this recent fight has brought the piracy issue to attention of the public once again. Hopefully from this dialogue, a more lasting peace can be made.

Wakanene Kamau is a First Year in the College majoring in Biological Chemistry.