Mike Weatherley is the Intellectual Property Adviser to the Prime Minister and MP for Hove and Portslade.

I have today released a report, Search Engines and Piracy, to both Vince Cable at BIS and the Prime Minister, whom I advise on IP issues, which details what role search engines – as de facto gateways to the internet – have in tackling online piracy.

As the biggest players, Google (90 per cent of searches in the UK), Microsoft (6 per cent) and Yahoo (3 per cent) are hugely influential and many feel they have much to answer for to the musicians, promoters, engineers, graphic designers and many other professionals who are losing out financially as a result of theft.

The UK is one of only three nations worldwide who are net exporters of music. The others are the USA (obviously) and Sweden (a surprise to most people and a great question to throw into a pub quiz). Hundreds of thousands are employed within the creative industries which makes them absolutely central to our recovering economy. We are good at creativity. Ensuring that this continues and flourishes should be a top priority for everyone. Yet online piracy remains at a high level in the UK (valued at £400 million for music and film alone). Getting Google and the others to sit around a table and be part of the solution would be a real boost.

In my report, I have concluded that Google and its rivals should be implementing certain initiatives including prioritising search results based on their legality, removing autocomplete suggestions of pirate sites, incorporating “trust marks” to denote legal content, and removing links altogether to sites that are subject to High Court orders for illegal content. I have pointed out that cutting off revenue streams of pirate sites by removing their ability to advertise is also considered to be an effective means of helping to prevent piracy.

It is important to stress that search engines are not the cause of online piracy. I have said all along that the actions of those who create illegal content and those that consume illegal content via downloading need to be tackled using a three-pronged approach incorporating education, carrot and stick. The activities of the pirates, which include a lot more than just plundering the work of the UK’s creative talent, and the relationship with funding via advertising and payment providers will soon be under scrutiny in my follow-up report, Follow the Money, which will be published over the coming month.

Nevertheless, our research demonstrates that search engines play a role in inadvertently guiding at least some consumers towards illegal content. The search engines are well placed to be part of the solution. The Digital Entertainment Survey 2013 concluded that 65 per cent of pirates regularly use search engines to identify unlicensed content. Google on the other hand suggests that traffic from the major search engines accounts for just 13 per cent of traffic to unlicensed music sites. A variety of statistics can be reeled off in both directions. What everyone can agree on is that it is still very easy to find illegal content via a search engine.

In submissions to me, both rights holders and the Culture, Media & Sport Select Committee have expressed frustration by the lack of progress that has been made by search engines in eliminating pirate material from search results. Search engine providers have conversely all made submissions showing that what they have done that should be applauded. My report, which wouldn’t have been possible without the assistance of IP specialists Olswang, presents all of these points of view and comes to balanced conclusions on how all parties can work together towards a common goal.

But it isn’t just about the searches and subsequent directions to the pirate. Advertising on the internet is complicated with ad agencies saying that it is difficult to determine exactly what ad goes where (witnessed recently when an advert for MI5 recruitment ended up in a pirate site!). Advertising revenue that is generated by the search engines (through Google’s AdWords for example) is also intertwined. How we stop the pirates from advertising on Google and how Google (and ad agencies) stops ads from appearing on pirate sites could be resolved through a code of conduct – or legislation if necessary.

So why should we be concerned by online piracy at all? It’s not just kids downloading songs from huge bands who are millionaires anyway nor is it providing a service to bands that supposedly should be grateful for people listening to their music that wouldn’t have bought it anyway. I’ve tried to make the point before on ConHome that theft is theft is theft, and that it isn’t only the stars at the top of the industry who are affected. The economic impact of piracy on the creative industries is crippling; it threatens innovation and it stifles the development of new artists and content. Ensuring that our creative industries flourish should be a top priority for everyone.

There is no doubt that the music and film industries were slow to embrace downloading generally (it is easy to understand their apprehension though following years of physical theft of music). Now that industry is onboard, the overall experience for music and film fans has gotten better. Whether it be through YouTube and Spotify, or iPlayer and Netflix, the download offering is rapidly progressing. And it is this sort of highly successful innovation that is under attack.

Search Engines and Piracy is bound to cause something of a storm in the music and film industries over the coming weeks and months as its implications are discussed and challenged. I do accept that the internet is a force for good, and a source of freedom for many. We should be careful not to set dangerous precedents when it comes to filtering, just as we are careful not to erode our hard-fought liberties in the physical world. However, in the virtual world, a proportionate balance between rights and responsibilities has yet to be found.

Search engines are certainly part of the problem when it comes to online piracy but it is encouraging that they recognise this as our search for a solution without their continued co-operation and support would be long indeed.

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