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Google's new plan to fight piracy draws skepticism

If your Web site generates too many takedown notices, Google may drop you in its search rankings. Some Internet advocacy groups say such a system can easily be abused.

Kent Walker, Google's general counsel, testified last year before Congress about the company's antipiracy efforts. The search company has been under pressure for years to do more piracy fighting. Greg Sandoval/CNET

Some among those who advocate for Internet users see within Google's plan to downgrade accused pirate sites in the company's search results the potential for abuse.

Google announced on the company's blog today that sites that generate too many take-down notices will find themselves pushed down in the search rankings. Takedown notices are the documents that owners of copyrighted material file in order to request the deletion of unauthorized copies of their work from Web sites.

Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, Web site owners must remove unauthorized files once they've received a legitimate takedown notice. Wendy Seltzer is dedicated to helping site operators from being wrongly accused of piracy. She created an organization called the Chilling Effects clearinghouse, a collaborative archive designed to protect lawful activity from legal threats.

Seltzer said that the impacts of Google's plan could be felt far and wide. People who post material hoping for the largest audience must consider whether the site is one that might someday be rendered invisible in Google's search rankings.

"It's a reminder, I think, that search is not just an objective view of what's out there on the Internet but a particularized sorting of that information," Seltzer said. "Google has chosen to include another signal in that sorting.... It's a concern when it changes the impact of the takedown notice."

How is the takedown notice changing? It could now be used with greater effectiveness as a weapon, says Public Knowledge, a public interest group with an interest in copyright law.

Wendy Seltzer, founder of the Chilling Effects. She says: 'Search is not just an objective view of what's out there on the Internet."

"Sites may not know about, or have the ability to easily challenge, notices sent to Google," John Bergmayer, a senior staff attorney with Public Knowledge, said in a statement. "And Google has set up a system that may be abused by bad faith actors who want to suppress their rivals and competitors. Sites that host a lot of content, or are very popular, may receive a disproportionate number of notices (which are mere accusations of infringement) without being disproportionately infringing. And user-generated content sites could be harmed by this change, even though the DMCA was structured to protect them."

Not everybody is unhappy.

Some at the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America, the respective trade groups for the major film studios and music labels, seem pleased.

"We will be watching this development closely -- the devil is always in the details," the MPAA said in a statement. "[We] look forward to Google taking further steps to ensure that its services favor legitimate businesses and creators, not thieves."

Seltzer had some advice for site operators who are wrongly accused. They have to file counter takedown notices if they're receiving improper takedown notices. Naturally, they can obtain the right documents from