Google's announcement that it is to incorporate copyright takedown requests into its search results to push sites down its rankings have been greeted with alarm by legal technology experts.
The changes will mean that copyright holders that view sites as offering content illegally and file requests under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in the US will have their complaints taken onboard by the search giant's algorithms.
The situation is particularly worrisome because simply reporting a site under the DCMA could affect a site's ranking, which will worry many who live or die by their position in Google's search results, as the furore over the Panda update in 2011 revealed.
"Changing the search rankings based on issues of takedown notices - effectively suspicion reporting by one aggrieved person without any reliable adjudication by anyone - is alarming," Robin Fry, a partner at law firm DAC Beachcroft, told V3.
"Google is immensely powerful and its actions do have effects."
The situation means that firms can only appeal to Google after the event if they feel they are being unjustly affected, by which time it could be too late, although the search firm insists the system is a fair process.
"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," said Amit Singhal, a senior vice president of engineering at the firm in a blog post.
"We'll continue to provide 'counter-notice' tools so that those who believe their content has been wrongly removed can get it reinstated."
This will be small comfort to many, though, as it appears to strike a tone of "guilty until proven innocent".
Furthermore, it is interesting that Google has made this move now, having long resisted calls to push sites believed to be infringing copyright down its rankings.
Luke Scanlon, a technology lawyer at Pinsent Masons, said it appeared Google could be taking a proactive stance to potential changes in the law that could come into force in the future, placing more burdens on the search giant's role in combating illegal online downloads.
"There's a lot of movement on copyright laws and Google needs a good working relationship with content providers to deliver on its role as an aggregation provider, so it appears to be on the front foot in trying to ensure these relationships are maintained," Scanlon told V3.
"In Europe the firm is immune from a lot of liabilities around illegal content access but that only applies if it is unaware of illegal information. So if it's made aware of this and takes steps to counter this by reducing sites' rankings, it will hope to maintain this immunity."
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