WASHINGTON--The tone of a congressional hearing held today on antipiracy was set early when Rep. Bob Goodlatte suggested that Google was falling short in its antipiracy efforts.
Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of a U.S. House Judiciary subcommittee that is investigating Web sites accused of pirating intellectual property, started off the hearing by noting some of Google's antipiracy accomplishments. He cited a story published this morning by CNET about how Google has removed an app from music service Grooveshark, which has been accused of copyright violations by some of the major record companies.
But for Goodlatte, Google hadn't done enough. "The question isn't what Google has done," Goodlatte told the audience. "But more about what Google has left to do."
He listed a series of accusations that some in the entertainment industries have leveled at Google for years, such as the ability of alleged pirates to fund their operations by posting Google ads to their site, as well as Google's inability to promptly remove infringing materials when notified.
For nearly a decade now, the music, film, software, video game, and a host of other industries have complained about the distribution of counterfeit and pirated goods online. They claim that the costs are in the billions of dollars and thousands of jobs. Congress as well as President Obama have said they will push hard for stronger copyright protections. Both houses of Congress are expected to introduce legislation this year that targets so-called rogue Web sites. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has said he will re-introduce an updated version of a bill he introduced last year called the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA), which is designed to speed up the legal process involved with shutting down accused U.S. pirate sites.
Among the other witnesses who testified were John Morton, director of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Floyd Abrams, an expert on the First Amendment.
Appearing on behalf of Google was Kent Walker, the company's general counsel. Of all the witnesses, committee members seemed most interested in Walker, who could offer details about Google's antipiracy operations.
Walker described Google's position this way: the company has spent a great deal of money on helping copyright owners identify unauthorized content online. As one of his examples, Walker cited a content-identification system that helps keep pirated material from being posted on YouTube. It took 50,000 engineering hours to build.
He said the company, however, would have an impossible time distinguishing legitimate content from illegitimate without the help of owners. Presumably, Walker was referring to the take-down notices that the company requires content creators to submit when they find links to unauthorized copies of their work. Content owners have complained that the process is too arduous and often when content is taken down, someone puts it right back up.
As for the relationship between alleged pirate sites and Google ads, Walker said the company has a process to thwart the "bad guys" and that the company does not profit from these sites.
"These sites cost us money," Walker said. "They cost us money to get rid of them. They cost us money when they use fake credit cards...we have no interest in having our advertisement leading to these sites."
Walker was very clear that he didn't think it would be correct or effective to turn Google into the "judge, jury and executioner" on the issue of online piracy. Walker was asked whether Google could cut off advertising and ad revenue to sites the government claimed were engaged in piracy.
Walker said yes. "If we have the government come and tell us that it's illegal," he said. "But we hope it doesn't put us in a position to have to make that evaluation."
Answering questions in the first half of the hearing, before the subcommitte adjourned for a brief recess, Walker appeared to hold his own. He could be seen during the break huddling with staff, including Fred von Lohmann, a former senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and one of the most respected lawyers among those who favor more liberal copyright laws.
After the break, the members of the subcommittee appeared to grow more skeptical of Walker's responses. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fla.) said she had spoken with Walker in March about the term "knockoff," which--when keyed into Google--led to the presentation of all sorts of illegal goods. She said that such a keyword search is used for one thing: obtaining stolen goods. She was unhappy Google had done nothing about this.
"You're Google. You helped overthrow the head of an entire country in a weekend," Wasserman-Schultz told Walker, which got the audience at the hearing laughing. She was presumably referring to Google employee Wael Ghonim, who has been credited with helping organize the protests that eventually brought down Egypt's Mubarak government. "To suggest that this is too difficult for you to accomplish demonstrates I think more an expression of a lack of will."
Before the hearing ended, one subcommittee member asked all the witnesses if they were committed to fighting piracy and all said they were. Google can point to several areas in which, during the past year, it has stepped up efforts in protecting intellectual property.
In December, the search engine announced it would start booting alleged copyright violators off AdSense, the company's successful advertising program. The company has also provided software tools to copyright owners to identify infringing content. In some cases, it has offered this free of charge.