Reams of Data in Google's 'Transparency Report' - UPDATE

UPDATE: MEC, a reporting organization submitting takedown requests on behalf of owners of adult content, sent AVN a comment Saturday morning that addresses why the company stopped submitting requests on Feb. 27, as well as changes it is making to its submission process.

"Unfortunately," the statement reads, "the method we used previously was not as accurate as we liked and resulted in a few mistakes. Once this was brought to our attention, we halted all notices and have since been working to perfect all mistakes. By this, we mean eliminating automation completely. In the coming days we will once again start sending notices, and will be working with Google senior copyright counsel, Mr. Fred Von Lohmann, to ensure that all notices are accurate and that mistakes are not repeated. This is the reason notices have stopped, but we will start up again shortly. No automation whatsoever; purely manual." 

In another development, Degban, a reporting organization that stopped sending requests April 7, has started submitting again. In a burst of activity over one day, Degban not only reappeared but surged back into the top ten most active submitters list for the week. Yesterday, according to the Google Transparency Report, the company filed 153 separate requests, identifying many thousands of individual URLs, on behalf of three companies—Intellectual Property Promotions Association, RK Netmedia and

LOS ANGELES—With the launch yesterday of Google's Transparency Report detailing copyright infringement requests submitted to the search engine giant through its web form, a wealth of data about who is requesting takedowns for which sites on behalf of whom is now available for the public to see, pretty much as it happens. Google has said that it will update the site daily, which as it unfolds is sure to reveal some very interesting trends regarding alleged copyright infringement on or through Google. Even a cursory glance reveals, for instance, that the adult industry is well represented on the lists, to say the least.

Google's senior copyright counsel, Fred von Lohmann, announced the launch May 24 on the Google blog. The new section on copyright, he wrote, is designed to disclose "the number of requests we get from copyright owners (and the organizations that represent them) to remove Google Search results because they allegedly link to infringing content. We’re starting with search because we remove more results in response to copyright removal notices than for any other reason. So we’re providing information about who sends us copyright removal notices, how often, on behalf of which copyright owners and for which websites.

"For this launch," he continued, "we’re disclosing data dating from July 2011, and moving forward we plan on updating the numbers each day. As you can see from the report, the number of requests has been increasing rapidly. These days it’s not unusual for us to receive more than 250,000 requests each week, which is more than what copyright owners asked us to remove in all of 2009. In the past month alone, we received about 1.2 million requests made on behalf of more than 1,000 copyright owners to remove search results. These requests targeted some 24,000 different websites."

Lohmann also expressed the company's confidence in the takedown provisions and standards set out in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), stating, " We believe that the time-tested “notice-and-takedown” process for copyright strikes the right balance between the needs of copyright owners, the interests of users, and our efforts to provide a useful Google Search experience. Google continues to put substantial resources into improving and streamlining this process. We already mentioned that we’re processing more copyright removal requests for Search than ever before. And we’re also processing these requests faster than ever before; last week our average turnaround time was less than 11 hours."

As Google has noted and as the lists make clear, a relatively few reporting organizations have been responsible for the lion's share of takedown requests received by Google, and among them are a few reporting orgs that represent adult copyright owners. But a closer examination of the data also reveals that a few of the adult companies sending in takedown requests on behalf of adult copyright owners are no longer represented on the list.

Degban, for instance, representing a reported 81 clients, was the third listed reporting organization for the past year, following only Marketly, on behalf of Microsoft,  in first, and NBCUniversal, on behalf of itself, in second. But Degban is nowhere to be found on the lists for the "past month" and the "past week." According to Google, the last date Degban filed a takedown request with the company was on April 7, 2012. The reason it fell of the map is likely due to the fallout from a March 2012 episode in which a writer and comedian named Dave Gorman complained publicly, pointedly and rightfully about a takedown notice sent to Flickr by Degban on behalf of (which has since ceased using Degban) about a graphic created by Gorman that was then removed by Flickr, erasing in the process years of comments and links.

Degban originally claimed that it had been hacked, but the claim was never substantiated, and in fact was shown by Gorman to have been highly improbable given the date of the deletion happened before the claimed hack. Degban said it would clear up all inconsistencies in a follow-up comment to AVN that never arrived. Instead, the company fell off the radar and, we now know, stopped sending takedown requests to Google.

Another reporting organization, MEC, came in at a very respectable 9th place on the yearly list of the leading requesting entities. MEC, which sent takedown notices on behalf of Hydrenta, the parent company for Met-Art, a leading glamour/nude website, sent in its last request to Google on Feb. 27, 2012. We are not exactly sure why MEC stopped so abruptly, but will ask Google for more information, if in fact it knows.

Two other reporting organizations with adult clients who also came in high on the list and have not fallen off are Takedown Piracy and RemoveYourContent, the former of which is in fourth place over all over the past month, sending in even more takedown requests to Google than the Recording Industry of America.

Copyright owners represented by Takedown Piracy include Digital Playground, Evil Angel, Porn Pros and Elegant Angel, the last of which had the extreme distinction of being the fourth most frequent requester of a takedown for the last month, behind only Microsoft, NBC Universal and the British Recorded Music Industry.

According to Nate Glass, founder of Takedown Piracy, Elegant Angel is a new client and as such generated a huge number of takedown requests as he works to take allegedly infringing content offline that has been sitting there for some time. Over time, therefore, as he is successful in his work, Elegant Angel's rating as a leader in takedown requests to Google should lessen ... we hope!  

For the same monthly tally, it should be said, Evil Angel was listed in 16th place and Porn Pros in 19th, but many adult companies—including, Vivid, LFP Video Group, New Sensations, Jules Jordan Video, Digital Sin Voyeur Media and Met-Art, which now appears to be represented by Takedown Piracy—are not far behind. Of the companies listed above, all use Takedown Piracy except for Vivid and Jules Jordan Video, which use RemoveYourContent. (Some companies also use more than one of these services, especially as increased competition in this thriving cottage industry has created more options for content owners, caveat emptor.)

As comprehensive as the Transparency Report is, though, the only piece of information that is not readily provided on the site is the percentage of takedown requests that result in an actual takedown. In fact, that information is not found on any of the main page in the copyright section, but is in part answered in the section's FAQ, which includes the following:

Q: How many of these requests did you comply with?

A: We removed 97% of search results specified in requests that we received between July and December 2011.

Thus far, it appears as if compliance figures will not be updated daily or even weekly or monthly, but perhaps only periodically, but that data point is in fact essentially in understanding the true health, efficiency and  fairness of the overall process. It also begs the question: what process has Google put in place, if any, to filter out false takedown notices. Degban, for instance, was very active during the time period mentioned above, during which 97 percent of the requests were complied with.

But it appears Degban may have been sending a larger percentage of false requests than Google would have tolerated had it known. It apparently did not, however, and in the end Degban's problems were revealed not by an internal mechanism but by a lone individual who screamed loudly and frequently when his image was taken offline at a Degban request. The fact is, that man's actions are a rarity, and those reporting organizations that do not institute a failsafe system on top of their automated process for generating takedown notices, often count on that fact when they inundate service providers like Google and Flickr with takedown notices. No one is saying that any of these companies is purposefully or maliciously targeting non-infringed content for takedown, but to the extent that sloppiness or poor methodology is resulting in legitimate content being taken offline—and for all we know the number is higher than we would like to believe—it is the copyright takedown process' elephant in the room.

Thogh clearly a "notice-and-takedown" process champion, Google addressed the existence of the elephant via Lohmann's May 24 blog post. "At the same time, we try to catch erroneous or abusive removal requests," he wrote. "For example, we recently rejected two requests from an organization representing a major entertainment company, asking us to remove a search result that linked to a major newspaper’s review of a TV show. The requests mistakenly claimed copyright violations of the show, even though there was no infringing content. We’ve also seen baseless copyright removal requests being used for anticompetitive purposes, or to remove content unfavorable to a particular person or company from our search results. We try to catch these ourselves, but we also notify webmasters in our Webmaster Tools when pages on their website have been targeted by a copyright removal request, so that they can submit a counter-notice if they believe the removal request was inaccurate."

It is unclear from that statement or from the site itself, however, how Google tries to catch bad requests, and the Degban incident, which occurred relatively recently, suggests that Google, like Flickr and really any company in their position, has a way to go in that department, and may in fact be counting on copyright owners more than they would like to publicly admit.

According to Takedown Piracy's Glass, though, even Google does not have the resources to police the accuracy of every takedown request. "The problem is that if you did want Google to put an eyeball on every claim of infringement, it would be impossible," he told AVN today. "They would need a staff of a million people just to keep up with the deluge of requests."

That makes policing by copyright owners all the more important in terms of keeping reporting organizations on the straight and narrow. "When you send a notice and someone files a counter DMCA claim, I'm assuming that was a strike on your record," he said. "So the process does require people to know that you had made a mistake, which means there's probably a little gap there." In other words, if Google is counting on counter-claims, and few people file them, how is anyone to know that false claims are occurring?

For Glass, the answer to that has everything to do with the reporting organizations themselves. If they are not sloppy and they ensure as best they can that the takedown requests being sent are legitimate, the process itself will be legitimate. But even there, Google has a role to play in making sure the reporting organizations it allows to use its system are themselves legit.

"As much as I like the way Google has updated their DMCA process," said Glass, "my biggest complaint is that once they let the riff-raff in, that's when it went bad, because they basically launched this program with people who had a good track record and worked out the bugs, and then they basically let everybody in."

That being said, Glass is equally confident that Google's new openness will itself provide a serious disincentive for companies to blithely issues takedowns assuming that if a few (or a lot) of false requests are sent, no one will know. It is already possible for people to use as a starting point to track down whether requests are legitimate, but now, at least for Google, there is now daily updated data available to help in that investigation.

"Putting it out there in this form is a good thing," said Glass. "I've already seen people going through it today. The internet detectives are out, and if they can expose people who are abusing the system, I'm all for it."

Another possible side benefit to adding some transparency to the process may be that those screaming "censorship" at the revelation of so many millions of takedown requests being issued, and presumably complied with, may temper their anger as it becomes more apparent that a large majority of requests are legitimate and that mass infringement of content remains a real problem. We're not holding our collective breath on that one, however.