Working Toward a Safer, Stronger Internet

March 21, 2022

By Charles H. Rivkin

Online piracy of creative works is a massive, global problem. In 2020, there were 137.2 billion visits globally to film and TV piracy sites alone. The damage is profound, costing the US economy at least 230,000 jobs and more than $29.2 billion annually, according to a US Chamber of Commerce/NERA Economic Consulting study. Piracy isn’t just a problem for creators; it also harms consumers, who are thirty times more likely to be exposed to malicious content on a pirate site than on a legitimate one.

It’s a daunting problem—and one no single player in the online ecosystem can solve alone.

Recognizing this, over the last decade we’ve built a network of voluntary initiatives with a wide range of good-faith stakeholders of the internet ecosystem, including advertising networks, internet service providers, payment processors, user-generated content platforms, domain name registries and registrars, and search engines—Google among them—in an effort to ensure piracy-site operators can’t exploit the services these companies provide to facilitate their illegal conduct. Taken together, these collaborative efforts have begun to make a difference.

For example, Google and the Motion Picture Association have worked together to fight piracy through Google’s efforts, in response to judicial orders directed at ISPs in ten countries outside the US, to remove search results pointing to piracy websites—a practice known as “delisting.” Working with MPA, Google has removed a substantial number of piracy-related domains from its search results in these countries to help effectively enforce court orders requiring ISPs to block access to piracy sites. To date, Google has delisted search results for nearly 10,000 domains in response to these “no fault” orders directed at ISPs. This targeted delisting by Google supplements judicial enforcement efforts, as well as Google’s efforts to more effectively “downrank” pirate site domains in its search results based on infringement notices.

Google’s delisting of pirate sites works.

Our initial research into the efficacy of delisting efforts is promising, showing that traffic to piracy sites when blocked and delisted decreased more sharply than traffic to piracy sites that were only subject to blocking by ISPs. This is especially true for piracy streaming sites (which account for the vast majority of piracy today). The sites in the study showed on average a 1.5 times larger traffic decline when they are also delisted, an amount that would vary depending on the sites and countries involved.

Given the scale of the problem—remember, we’re talking about over 137 billion visits to film and TV piracy sites annually—in real terms, delisting of pirate sites matters. And our initial research findings affirm our interest in this important work and further studying how delisting efforts can help stem the proliferation of piracy.

Our partnership with Google builds on the broader global trend towards no-fault orders, currently in use in thirty-six countries, that direct ISPs and other intermediaries to cut off access to dedicated piracy sites located in other jurisdictions that do not hold bad actors accountable, or which otherwise manage to evade law enforcement. “No-fault” means that the service providers aren’t held legally at fault, but are ordered by courts to assist because they’re in a position to help curb piracy facilitated by their services. The process to issue these orders includes a high level of due process, and often the ISPs and intermediaries participate voluntarily. All the while, these orders have worked exactly as intended by the law—tackling illegal content only and ensuring that the internet user experience and access to legal content is unhindered.

Peer-reviewed studies have confirmed that, where these orders are employed, traffic to identified piracy websites falls by as much as 80-90%, while the usage of legitimate subscription services goes up by as much as 12%. And because they are issued through transparent court processes, they are consistent with democratic values. Indeed, in March 2020 testimony before the US Senate Judiciary Intellectual Property Subcommittee, Professor Justin Hughes observed:

While there are both procedural complexities and sensitive freedom of expression concerns here, injunctions ordering ISPs to disable access to websites that predominantly promote copyright infringement have been reviewed and upheld by courts in a number of democratic societies with robust freedom of expression, including—but not limited to—the Danish Supreme Court, the Helsinki Court of Appeals, the Paris Regional Court, the New Delhi and Madras High Courts, and the High Court of Justice of England and Wales.

What’s more, countries like the United Kingdom and Australia, where such orders are routine, have received Freedom House’s highest internet freedom ranking. And Norway, Finland, and Sweden, which also allow these orders, are the top three nations on the Reporters without Borders 2021 World Press Freedom Report.

To be sure, no anti-piracy tool is perfect. And there will always be a segment of users who will actively work to evade and circumvent these blocks. Search engines are one tool that can be exploited in this way—behavior also studied empirically by Carnegie Mellon University researchers—where they concluded:

The presence of pirate or legal links in search results strongly influences the behavior of both the general and college-aged populations: users are more likely to choose a legal option to acquire the movie when legal sites are promoted, and users are more likely to choose a pirate option when piracy links are promoted.

But the data are clear: these “no-fault” judicial orders are safe, especially when narrowly targeted at genuine bad actors under the supervision of the courts. And we know from empirical research and real-world testing with our partners at Google that delisting adjudicated piracy sites from search results makes this already effective legal tool even more potent.

Like other voluntary efforts, this collaboration is an example of “cooperative accountability”—where effective legal tools and data-driven policy, coupled with meaningful cooperation, can yield real results. Peers and fellow stakeholders can do more working together than they can going it alone.

We’re encouraged to see Google stepping up its efforts, as other internet intermediaries have. We hope we can continue to find ways to build upon this work together to tackle the persistent piracy problem and, in so doing, protect creators, innovators, and consumers.

Charles H. Rivkin is Chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association.