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Is Google Playing With Music, or Fire?


iTunes competitor Google Play recently launched its music store in the UK in a move that would suggest Google wants to seriously compete with iTunes’ supremacy over the online music market. However, some of Google’s recent tactics have come under scrutiny [2] from the UK’s biggest record label. How can a company that has constantly (if unintentionally) propped up internet piracy wish to now peddle copyrighted material through their own service without furrowing a few brows?

The prevalence of internet piracy, and the basic issue of how users gain access to such material online, has always been hugely exacerbated by the fact that these pirate sites have appeared highly in search engine results. In the past, centralised peer-to-peer file sharing platforms such as Napster, Audiogalaxy and Soulseek – all of which operate on a network accessed via a separate application away from browsers – were the tool of choice for most pirates. But as high quality music files became the norm and file sizes increased, users’ hunger for pirated material grew in kind.

This led to the growth of more reliable, decentralized sharing systems such as BitTorrent, that, whilst transferring data via their own application, require users to share information over the web [3] in order to gain access to these files. Unintentionally, the omniscient and unbiased power of Google search is what enabled users to access these file-sharing sites with ease. Furthermore, file-hosting services such as Megaupload and Rapidshare have provided another channel through which copyrighted material can be illicitly shared, and the most popular method of sharing links to these files is via blogs, many of which are easily discoverable via Google.

Google has always taken pride in and defended its ‘hands off’ approach to search, aimed at promoting a policy of internet neutrality (see the case of Foundem [4] in 2010). However this ethos has inevitably led to its use in seeking out pirated material online. In order to try and throw a lofty left hook at internet pirates and quieten music industry critics, in these recent months Google has made a few high profile changes to search, but this has undoubtedly been detrimental to its aforementioned search neutrality.

Firstly, in September of this year Google removed “The Pirate Bay” [5] (both symbolically and in terms of traffic the leading site for BitTorrent piracy) from auto-complete search, and secondly it caved in to pressure from anti-piracy groups and pledged to downgrade [6] the search engine rankings of sites that receive higher numbers of copyright infringement notices.

Although targeting content that undoubtedly deserves some censure, it’s clear that these sorts of restrictions being imposed ad hoc to piracy sites no longer renders Google search as an impartial and omniscient eye across the web aiming “to rank first what people are most likely to find useful,” but instead as an arbiter of internet content.

This recent attitudinal change on Google’s part has appeared conveniently close to the launch of Google Play, despite years of preceding pressure from anti-piracy parties such as the RIAA and BPI. Google Play has insisted that they aim to “make it easy for consumers to acquire legal music” and that “the way that [the] search engine works is a completely separate algorithm from anything [they] do on Google Play.” They’ve also placed an emphasis on how Google Play aims to defeat piracy by simply leaving it redundant in the eyes of users: “I think that is something that is hopefully going to make piracy obsolete because it’s so easy to operate within the bounds of the law that there is really no need to go beyond them,” said Sami Valkonen, Google Play’s head of international licensing.

This slant of tackling piracy by undercutting it in terms of user effort has proven to be largely successful when considering all-you-can-stream services such as Spotify, Rdio, MOG and Deezer. It was revealed last year that the number of internet pirates in Sweden had dropped by some 25% [7] since Spotify’s introduction, and that roughly 24% of Swedish Spotify users had decided to start paying for Spotify because it was “simpler”.

Streaming music services such as Spotify do seem to offer a desirable alternative to even the most substantial  of internet pirates and prove that it is in fact possible to beat the ’pirate-sphere.’ Thus it would seem Google Play hopes to compete by offering a similar yet distinct service. By allowing its users to upload streamable music [8] to a ‘cloud’ service, and to either download (DRM-free, unlike iTunes) or stream purchased tracks, they are compiling various aspects of the iTunes and Spotify models into something decidedly new.

Google Play does represent a relatively fresh alternative to currently existing online music services, but in the long run could suffer from the same problems that befell Google+, landing in limbo. Where Google+ combined elements of various social networks only to wind up being ’not quite Facebook’ and ’not quite Twitter,’ Google Play could well be a patchwork that fails to capture the hearts and minds of iTunes and Spotify users, or even internet pirates.

Whether or not Google Search’s recent policy changes towards the rankings of copyright infringing websites is in fact an attempt to slyly drive at-a-loss pirates towards their new-fangled Google Play service is dubious, but these conflicting methods to both tackling piracy and garnering a part of the digital music market do highlight something vital about Google’s increasing number of services.

As Google offers more and more services outside of search, they will undoubtedly encounter an increasing number of conflicts of interest when creating exceptions to their search neutrality. If Google’s new found interest in quelling piracy via its search engine – albeit in order to secure more users for its own music platform – does gain further ground in the battle against music piracy, one has to wonder if another step away from unbiased search results is going to be worth it in the long term?