Online copyright infringers take note. Beginning next week, Google will modify its search algorithms so that it ranks search results based on the number of valid copyright removal notices it receives for a given site, among other factors.
The search giant says it "regularly" receives requests to remove URLs from its search database from copyright holders and the organizations who represent them. That's something of an understatement – it had received 4.3 million such requests in the last month alone.
According to a blog post by Google senior VP of engineering Amit Singhal, the company will begin using this removal-notice data as one of around 200 "signals" that help it decide which results are most relevant for a given search.
"Sites with high numbers of removal notices may appear lower in our results," Singhal writes, although he does not specify how high the number would have to be to affect the search algorithm.
Currently, the domains with the highest number of removal requests on the Chocolate Factory's Transparency Report are generally file-sharing sites, including BitTorrent trackers and Megaupload-style files lockers.
Singhal says the purpose of the new algorithm is not merely to suppress such sites, but to make it easier for web searchers to find content from legitimate sources.
One somewhat worrying aspect of Google's system, however, is that it depends solely on whether the copyright notices received are valid, not on whether the content itself is actually infringing.
"Only copyright holders know if something is authorized, and only courts can decide if a copyright has been infringed," Singhal writes. "Google cannot determine whether a particular webpage does or does not violate copyright law."
Singhal says the online ad giant will continue to provide tools that allow those who believe their content has been wrongly removed to reinstate it. Under US law, once a valid "counter notice" claim is filed, the service provider must reinstate the content unless the alleged copyright owner brings a lawsuit in district court within 14 days.
Predictably, media industry pressure groups, including the MPAA and RIAA, reacted to Google's plan with guarded enthusiasm.
In a press release, Michael O'Leary, senior executive VP for global policy and external affairs at the MPAA, wrote, "We will be watching this development closely – the devil is always in the details – and look forward to Google taking further steps to ensure that its services favor legitimate businesses and creators, not thieves." ®