Google has signaled that the company is prepared to oppose the major film and music companies as well as Congress and the president of the United States on a controversial bill designed to thwart online piracy.
Google Chairman Eric Schmidt said today in London that the company is prepared to go on fighting the bill should it become law, according to published reports. U.K. publication the Guardian is reporting that in a discussion with reporters during a London business conference, Schmidt said: "If there is a law that requires DNS [domain name systems, the protocol that allows users to connect to Web sites], to do x, and it's passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the president of the United States, and we disagree with it, then we would still fight it...If it's a request, the answer is we wouldn't do it; if it's a discussion, we wouldn't do it."
This is the first time Google management has come out against attempts to dispose of Web sites accused of piracy. A bill introduced into the U.S. Senate last week, called the Protect IP Act, looks to hand the U.S. Department of Justice the power to seek a court order against an allegedly infringing Web site. The order could be served on search engines, certain Domain Name System providers, and Internet advertising firms--which would in turn be required to "expeditiously" make the target Web site vanish.
Protect IP, which is the offspring of a bill introduced last year called the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA), is supported by an array of groups that represent copyright owners, such as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), clothing manufacturers, the Alliance of Safe Online Pharmacy, Eli Lilly and others. Supporters say such a bill is necessary to stop the mass pirating of intellectual property occurring online, which costs U.S. businesses billions in lost revenue and thousands of jobs.
Critics, which include the Electronic Frontier Foundation, prominent technologists and the American Civil Liberties Union, say the bill would equip the government with the means to silence dissenting opinion at will.
Schmidt compared the bill to the kind of laws that restrict free speech in China. Copyright owners have said the legislation has a series of legal checks and balances built in and would be geared only toward pirate sites. The United Kingdom is also working on plans to restrict access to sites accused of trafficking in counterfeit or pirated goods.
The timing of Schmidt's comments is important. For the past year, Google has signaled it wants a closer relationship with Hollywood film studios and the major music labels as it has attempted to obtain licensing rights to content. The search engine announced it would start booting alleged copyright violators off AdSense, Google's successful advertising program. Managers said they would try to block terms associated with piracy from appearing in the search engine's Autocomplete function.
But big copyright owners may not have as much leverage over Google now. After months and months of negotiating over licenses with the four largest record companies, Google launched a music service but did so in a way that the company said wouldn't require licenses.
Schmidt's comments on Protect IP and antipiracy were far more resolute than those made before Congress last month by Kent Walker, Google's general counsel. A subcommittee of the House of Representatives held a hearing on online piracy and counterfeiting, and members grilled him about accusations that Google profited from intellectual-property theft, such as from the posting of Google ads to pirate sites.
Walker listed many of the ways Google has helped protect copyrighted works and also cautioned against trying to take drastic approaches to piracy that may lead to other larger problems. However, Walker was certainly much more conciliatory than the saber-rattling Schmidt.
Some of the copyright owners lashed out at Schmidt's comments.
"This is baffling," said Jonathan Lamy, an RIAA spokesman. "As a legitimate company, Google has a responsibility to not benefit from criminal activity. In substance and spirit, this contradicts the recent testimony of (Walker) that the company takes copyright theft seriously and was willing to step up to the plate in a cooperative and serious way."
"Is Eric Schmidt really suggesting that if Congress passes a law and President Obama signs it, Google wouldn't follow it?" asked Michael O'Leary, the MPAA's chief of government relations. "As an American company respected around the world, it's unfortunate that, at least according to its executive chairman's comments today, Google seems to think it's above America's laws."
O'Leary also said that a respected expert on the U.S. Constitution noted last month that "copyright violations are not protected by the First Amendment."
On the other side of the debate, those who believe in the free flow of information, and critics of Protect IP, will likely welcome Schmidt's comments. Up until the company began making nice with copyright owners the past year or so, Google was seen as a champion of open Internet distribution of content. The company has sparred over copyright issues with newspapers, book publishers, recording companies, and big Hollywood studios--even fending off a $1 billion copyright complaint filed against it by Viacom, parent company of MTV.
It's unclear how much Google can do to prevent the bill from passing, or if it does, what it can do to reverse the government's position. Protect IP has broad support in both major political parties and in both houses of Congress, as well as in the White House.
In response to questions from CNET, a Google representative issued this statement: "Free expression is an issue we care deeply about, and we continue to work closely with Congress to make sure the Protect IP Act will target sites dedicated to piracy while protecting free expression and legitimate sites."
Updated 12:05 p.m. PT to include comments from Google.
Updated 11:50 a.m. PT to include comments from the MPAA.
Updated 11:10 a.m. PT to include comments from the RIAA.