A coalition of copyright owners is lobbying the government to prevent search engines such as Google and Bing from ranking websites that provide access to pirated content.
In a confidential document obtained through Freedom of Information request by the Open Rights Group, rights holders call for the introduction of a voluntary code of practice for search engines, to “help ensure that consumers are directed to safe and legal sources for entertainment content online”.
Suggested measures include demoting “substantially infringing” sites such as The Pirate Bay and isoHunt in search results, prioritising sites that have obtained certification under a recognised scheme, and removing websites altogether that are subject to court order.
The proposal also states that search engines should not support illegal sites by advertising them or selling keywords associated with them.
“The growth of the UK digital economy is presently held back by the pervasive nature of online infringement of copyright, particularly for digital entertainment content,” the document states.
“Innovation in new digital content services is hampered by the fact that such sites have to compete against large numbers of unlicensed, free competitors, some of which have become well known brands themselves while continuing to evade the law.”
The proposal document was put forward at a private meeting between copyright holders and search engines, hosted by the Secretary of State Jeremy Hunt and Culture Minister Ed Vaizey MP on 15 November 2011. According to the Open Rights Group (ORG), however, these are discussions that should be taking place in the open.
“As well as containing some dangerous ideas, the proposals help emphasise that copyright enforcement policy is suffering from a severe democratic deficit,” said ORG campaigner Peter Bradwell in a blog post.
“This whole process needs rebalancing so that it is based on a sound analysis and evidence, and operates through a transparent and open process. Otherwise, just like as is happening with ACTA, DCMS (Department for Culture Media and Sport) are simply repeating mistakes we've seen so recently over SOPA and PIPA in the US,” he added.
ORG hightlights some “particularly worrying elements” of the document, such as the suggestion that websites could be de-indexed without a court order. The proposal also fails to suggest how the industry might classify illegal or legal sites in practice.
There is also no discussion of possible market distortion or abuses – although it does state that the code should act proportionally within a wider public policy objective of freedom of general access to information online and healthy competition and access to online markets.
Minutes from the meeting, also obtained by ORG, suggest that the search engines plan to write their own proposals to be discussed at a future meeting. However, ORG stresses the need for more open and transparent consultation, and calls on DCMS to take a more active role in the discussions.
“Once again vague, poorly supported ideas for new powers to control the flow of information online are leading DCMS to exactly the same mistakes as were made in the US,” said Bradwell. “They need to set out how the process will work and when meetings will happen, and with who. It will result in a better, more inclusive and more constructive process. And it's the only way to give a shot of democracy into the arm of copyright policy making.”