Google, responding to anti-piracy pressure from a music industry trade group, is reportedly planning to cut off payments to ad partner sites deemed illegal. “Deemed” is the operative term here; Google, one hopes, already blocks funds to websites proven to be illegal–like, in a court with a judge and due process and that kind of stuff. But illegality in this case will, it seems, be a designation assigned to any website that doesn’t respond to legal threat letters from copyright holders.
Normally this is where I’d make a slippery-slope argument, about how, if this proceeds, it will lead to all kinds of intimidation and abuse. Large companies with deep pockets for baseless legal action will be able to harass small companies and individual publishers into positions in which simply defending themselves will be prohibitively expensive. They will then find themselves blacklisted, their search results demoted, their funds withheld, and they will disappear. These tactics needn’t be constrained to filesharing sites. Eventually, they might be used by political parties or even by governments to push dissenting voices off the Internet.
But luckily, I don’t need to make that speculative argument. You don’t have to use your imagination to picture the logical extremes of fund-blocking. You can just use Google. Search for “Wikileaks funding block” and you can re-live the story of how, shortly after the Pentagon spoke out against Wikileaks, the site found itself blocked from access to millions of dollars donated to the site from supporters.
It’s the slippery slope in reverse. We’ve already seen authorities attempt to kick a legal (until proven otherwise) website off the Internet by blocking its income source. It didn’t work, mind you, but still–normalizing the practice in the name of stopping piracy will only lead to more examples (and, perhaps, to the growth of BitCoin). Any site that allows for content uploads or even user comments might momentarily host copyrighted material (cough! Youtube!). But few sites can volley with big industry players in legal battle.
By setting such a low threshold for illegality, Google may make friends in the music and movie industries. But it will be at the expense of the open Internet, and against the interests of its own users.
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