In the series “algorithm regulation”, we discuss the implications of the growing importance of technological algorithms as a means of regulation in the digital realm. 

Earlier this year, Google revealed that it routinely removes search results that link to material allegedly infringing copyrights, thereby following removal requests of copyright holders (see  “New Layer of Copyright Enforcement: Search“). Since this announcement, the number of removed search results per month has quadrupeld (see Figure below).

Yesterday, Google announced that in addition to removing search results it is going to also adapt its ranking algorithm:

Starting next week, we will begin taking into account a new signal in our rankings: the number of valid copyright removal notices we receive for any given site. Sites with high numbers of removal notices may appear lower in our results.

As in discussed in the first entry of this series on algorithm regulation, the technological layer of regulation is becoming increasingly important for copyright enforcement. But Google’s move to tinker with its most precious asset, the search algorithm, also evidences that technological regulation of this kind may directly result from stakeholder negotiations.

Because with this measure, Google is implementing exactly one of the demands the content industry had approached search engine operators Google, Bing and Yahoo in a behind-closed-doors meeting in January with. The document guiding this meeting had been leaked by the Open Rights Group (PDF). The list of demands presented in the executive summary reads as follows:

  • Assign lower rankings to sites that repeatedly make available unlicensed content in breach of copyright
  • Prioritise websites that obtain certification as a licensed site under a recognised scheme
  • Stop indexing websites that are subject to court orders while establishing suitable procedures to de-index substantially infringing sites
  • Continue to improve the operation of the ‘notice and takedown’ system and ensure that search engines do not encourage consumers towards illegal sites via suggested searches; related searches and suggested sites
  • Ensure that they do not support illegal sites by advertising them or placing advertising on them, or profit from infringement by selling key words associated with piracy or selling mobile applications which facilitate infringement.

This list indicates that the upcoming change in the search algorithm due to rights holder demands is unlikely to be the last. However, in the blogpost announcing the change in its search algorithm, Google did not mention the negotiated background of this decision.