Over the past decade, Google has consistently documented its efforts to remove links from its search results to content that the tech giant considers pirated, and recently, the total number of Google takedowns since its reporting began has shot past 6 billion. It’s a milestone that Torrent Freak suggested shows that, “[w]hile copyright infringement can’t be eradicated entirely, Google is slowly but steadily presenting itself as a willing partner in the anti-piracy fight.”
Google’s slow evolution into an anti-piracy champion began ramping up in 1998. That’s when the Federal Communications Commission granted safe harbor to online service providers like Google, protecting them from copyright infringement claims about third-party content, with a condition that the providers disclose information on any users alleged to be infringers. A decade later in 2009, it seemed like Google wasn’t doing enough, though, and the FCC again intervened, responding to news publishers lashing out at Google and others. At that time, the publishers accused service providers of profiting off ad placements next to links from aggregators and scrapers, who were accused of grabbing and republishing news content without permission.
Back then, Google promised to address the issue by making it easier for rights holders to flag infringing content in search results. Then it launched its first transparency report in 2010, but that initial report only shared information on government requests for takedowns. Two years later, Google expanded its report, publicly counting every takedown notice that it received and “providing information about who sends us copyright removal notices, how often, on behalf of which copyright owners and for which websites.”
More recently, Google decided to go one step further by creating a preemptive blocklist in 2018. That move stopped copyright-infringing URLs from ever being indexed in search results, and those links are included in the 6 billion total of URLs delisted that Google documents today.
According to Torrent Freak, 326,575 copyright holders identified 4,041,845 separate domain names, adding up to 6 billion takedowns since 2012. But not all reports were valid. Torrent Freak itself was counted among “false positive” reported domains, along with “websites of the White House, the FBI, Disney, Netflix, and the New York Times.”
In 2012, Fred von Lohmann, Google’s senior copyright counsel, wrote in a blog that Google’s efforts to be more transparent about takedowns over this past decade were intended to help inform policy choices as the Internet evolves.
“As policymakers and Internet users around the world consider the pros and cons of different proposals to address the problem of online copyright infringement, we hope this data will contribute to the discussion,” Lohmann wrote.
Google did not immediately respond to Ars’ request for comment on policy impacts of its transparency reports.
Google’s partner in tracking all of its takedown notices for transparency purposes is Lumen, whose project manager, Adam Holland, told Ars that Google submits more data than any other company that Lumen partners with, such as Twitter, Wikipedia, or Reddit. Holland said that the majority of requests for Google data come from academics interested in analyzing long-term trends, as well as, increasingly, media and non-government organizations, but rarely policymakers.
“We don’t actually get a lot of interest directly from lawmakers,” Holland told Ars. “Personally, that disappoints me, but that’s the reality.”
However, recently, Holland said that Lumen has begun working with the European Union to help it enforce new transparency requirements for online service providers included in its newly passed Digital Services Act. As a neutral data resource, Lumen’s primary goal isn’t to influence policy, though. Holland told Ars the only stance that Lumen takes on the issue is remaining firmly against invisible takedowns by online service providers, because “[o]ur unofficial motto is good policy requires good data.” And because of its global reach, Google remains the key supplier of Lumen data.