Google found itself at the tip of the sword on the Hill Wednesday, defending against queries over whether its search engine aids and abets online pirates.
Several members of the House Judiciary Intellectual Property, Competition, and the Internet Subcommittee asked Google Senior Vice President and General Counsel Kent Walker what the company is doing to crack down on sites that offer pirated content or counterfeit products. The committee plans legislation to bolster tools available to combat online infringers and counterfeiters, particularly foreign websites.
“You’re Google -- you helped overthrow the head of an entire country in a weekend,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., told Walker, in an apparent reference to the role played by the web in recent democracy movements in the Middle East. “To suggest it’s too difficult for Google to accomplish… it seems to me it’s a lack of will.”
Other members pointed to examples of sites that offer free access to pirated movies or television shows and are supported by ads developed by Google.
For instance, Subcommittee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said that when staffers searched for "watch movies online," Google’s auto-complete function immediately brought up an offer to “watch free bootleg movies online.” He asked what Walker’s firm is doing to avoid abetting infringement by “not having these terms pop up on auto-complete."
Walker said the company is taking aggressive steps to crack down on infringers, including a content ID system that automatically scans every video uploaded to the firm’s YouTube video sharing site and compares each with the 4 million files provided by content creators to filter out illegal content.
Walker added that when Google is notified by copyright or trademark holders about ads on sites that offer infringing content or goods, it takes down those ads and cuts off payments to those sites for revenue generated from those ads.
“We rely on the content industry” to identify bad sites, Walker said. “We don’t want, and I don’t think the members of this committee want us, to be the judge, jury, and executioner against an entire site.”
Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., argued that companies like Google already perform this role when they have to determine the legitimacy of a request to take down allegedly illegal content under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
Walker said Google would be open to other “targeted” and “balanced” measures that might complement the tools provided under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and other laws that would not hamper innovation. He urged law enforcement and lawmakers to “go after the money” by including payment processors and advertisers who might unwittingly provide ads on sites that offer illegal goods.
Walker and Go Daddy General Counsel Christine Jones also asked lawmakers to ensure that the liability protections provided under the DMCA are not weakened. Jones asked the committee “to give us cover so that if we take action against people, we have a safe harbor so we don’t have people suing us or we’re not going to jail.... You have to help us help you.”
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., suggested that greater cooperation between copyright and trademark holders and technology firms like Google might yield “a more effective result that is far superior to what the non-engineers in Congress might craft.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee also is examining the issue. Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said his panel may offer legislation in the coming weeks to target rogue foreign websites that offer illegal content and goods.
Leahy’s panel approved legislation targeting such sites in the last Congress, drawing criticism from some tech firms and Internet engineers who said it would hamper innovation and set a precedent for foreign governments to use copyright infringement as an excuse to target political content.
John Morton, director of the Homeland Security Department’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said that while his agency has managed to seize some domain names that offer illegal content and goods, law enforcement needs more tools to target foreign websites.