Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 560 - 579)



  Q560  Mr Sanders: The ability for a government to prevent its citizens from accessing information is actually limited?

  Mr McLaughlin: It is not perfect.

  Q561  Helen Southworth: And, in fact, the ability of a government to prevent any other nation's citizens from accessing information through Google could be limited in due co-operation with that process. The reason I was asking what your role as a very powerful search tool internationally is in terms of the relationship with government, because I think this is one of the key points that people, certainly that I have been speaking to, have been asking me about; what right does Google have to censor my access to information at the request of another nation's government. The other thing is what right does Google have to tell my government or another government if I am accessing sites that that government does not wish me to see, not things that are criminal, but things that that government does not wish me to see.

  Mr McLaughlin: I see the direction that you are going at. We do not think that a government in one part of the world should be able to control what citizens of another country in another part of the world can do, which is why I was very careful to say that is where you implement the restrictions that are placed on us by the German Government and is the place where you implement the restrictions placed on us by the UK Government. We should just say, the internet presents a tremendous challenge to governments, it really does. It makes it very difficult to exercise control over the territorial jurisdiction that you are used to implementing in the case of, say, broadcast television, radio or newspapers. It is not an insoluble problem, but it is one where governments have to talk to each other if they are going to really get things done. Take the issue of gambling, which I know is a hot issue right now, as long as there is an Aruba, governments are going to find it difficult to restrict gambling within their borders. They can try, they can make it very difficult, they can punish in various and sundry ways, but from Google's perspective we think that the information that we provide in a given country (in the UK) should not be determined by some other government, and so our default position is access to information and then, when restrictions are placed, we implement those restrictions as narrowly as possible to meet the local requirements, meet the local law, but not have them extend to citizens in other parts of the world. That is very important to us.

  Q562  Alan Keen: Can I make almost a philosophical point. Hopefully the internet will teach politicians of all nations—I am not restricting it to China—that in the long run it is always better to tell the truth, it is less painful to tell the truth straightaway. There was one question that Helen asked earlier in the first session, a question which I do not think you answered about the criminal elements, people producing information which you would regard as criminal. I think she was asking, do you have a direct line to the police, the authorities, and do you tell them about it or do they have to find out about it through the system, which I approve of very much?

  Mr McLaughlin: It is a little of both. As I said, we are participants in the Internet Watch Foundation, which does in fact provide a direct line for direct reporting of criminal content and, in addition, we co-operate with law enforcement when they come to us.

  Q563  Alan Keen: We have talked about the baddies most of the time. Moving on to the goodies, how do we protect them, the creators of rightful and classical novels within the last century and things happening nowadays? There is a market for books and anything else. Everything in the world that has ever been produced can be put onto Google now and even, you said, onto iPods, everything that has ever been created, every bit of music. How do we go about protecting the creators of great stuff? Where are we now, and where are we going to move on to to look at it even further?

  Mr Arora: I think the existence of the internet and the cost of production going down is creating more of an opportunity for people who are creators of content to take their work and distribute it to the end consumer with a lot less middlemen involved. There are recent examples of artists like Teddy Geiger or Gnarls Barclay who have actually used the internet to put their music up there and make it hugely popular without having to go through four different sets of middlemen (a production company, a talent scout and a distribution company) who all take their piece, and they have been able to go directly to the consumer. I think Crazy, from Gnarls Barclay, was number one in the UK Charts purely because he promoted his music on the internet. There are examples. I think WH Smith has launched a programme where anybody who has a book that they have published can come to them and, for £3,000, they can put it in the Oxford Street Store and sell it on the internet. Clearly what you are finding is that a lot of the people who were traditional middle men in the process, from the creative content person to the end consumer getting the content and who are all taking their piece, are sometimes being bypassed by the existence of this distribution mechanism, which I think is a huge thing for a content producer because at the end of the day we all understand the price war that will occur: if you can price it cheaper to the end consumer more people are likely to consume it and the fact that this distribution allows it to get to the consumer a lot more cheaply than traditional methods of production, we think, is going to be very positive for the whole computer process.

  Q564  Alan Keen: Can I ask a very specific question which I found, even yesterday, slightly annoying. There are very clever people who want us to access their system. I was looking for hotel prices and availability. I would like to be able to get straight to that hotel's home site and it is not always easy to do that because people use very clever words for us to go to their site. I clicked twice on a site which, trying to work quickly, I thought was the home site and it was not, and that really infuriated me. What can we do about that? What can you do about it?

  Mr Arora: I think that is a constant challenge because of the way the algorithms are, they are also based in terms of consumer relevance and popularity; so sometimes aggregator sites that take a lot of hotels together and put them into their site end up ranking better than individual hotel sites because a lot of people go to the aggregator sites than individual sites. We are constantly working on algorithms to try and make that information more and more relevant. Hopefully, as we crack those things, you will continue to find it more and more relevant.

  Mr McLaughlin: We say as a company that we devote 70% of our resources to our core search and advertising services. To a lot of people this sounds a little boring. They say, "You have already got the search engine. Why are you continuing to put 70% of your resources, your people, your hours and your investments into search?" The answer is that we have to constantly work to keep our results relevant in the face of people who would like to jerry-rig and gain the results in order to get their sites higher up the search rankings. I am a constant traveller and I have the same frustration with hotels. For Google it is a never ending struggle to try to solve exactly that problem, and that is why we devote so many of our resources to that core service.

  Q565  Alan Keen: On security, is it going to improve? Are we going to be able to stop the baddies or will they always be able to beat the system and others have to come in later on and block that channel?

  Mr McLaughlin: The protocols of the internet were not designed with much thought about security, it was designed to be a very open network, and responsibility for security in the internet has traditionally resided at the edge. In other words, your laptop itself needs to be secure against threats. In some cases ISPs now are doing a very powerfully effective job of detecting viruses, spam and worms and these kinds of threats on the internet. I think that the broad story, if you look at the last eight years, is that as an industry, as a network, the internet has become significantly better. The spam problem is largely under control for most people. They are not seeing 50% of their inbox filled with spam, and if you are you are probably not taking advantage of the tools that are out there, for example GMail. It is the same thing with worms and viruses. If you remember, a few years ago there was a constant drum beat of worms and viruses hitting companies and shutting down systems. It has been a while since we have seen an incident like that, and part of it is that we are getting a lot better at locking down systems, detecting threats when they come. There is a network now of CERTS (Computer Emergency Response Teams)—there is one in the UK, there is one in the US, they are all over Europe. They co-ordinate very well, they spread information about threats as they come out and ISPs take action. I definitely would not say that we have got the upper hand over the baddies or they are on the run, but the security of the internet is actually a lot better that it used to be and, for most users who run a basic anti-virus programme on their computer, they can be relatively assured of protection, not 100% sure but significantly more secure than they were a few years ago, and I would expect that trend to continue. It is in everybody's interests.

  Q566  Alan Keen: Somebody has already asked you the same question but I would like to ask it again. I was one of those who worked on mainframes in the late sixties and early seventies when central core storage was vastly expensive. We had to sort everything going in sequentially off-line before we could access and do something with it. I am staggered by the progress which has been made. I worked commercially on using the first Apples that came out. I have seen wonderful progress in my life. Can I ask you again, what is going to happen next? You said you could not say what would happen in five years with Google, but taking the industry or the technology as a whole and leaping ahead, what can happen?

  Mr Arora: We came from the days of the mainframe—I learnt programming on a mainframe many years ago myself—whereas your personal computer now today can do most things that a mainframe could do about 15 years ago, and we have come into a client server type environment. The reason it came through a client server type environment is because you have to have very big pipes if everything was to go through the server because of all the computing power and all the different applications. Now, because broadband is becoming so prevalent all over the world, the notion of being able to store your information on the net or on this cloud out there is reappearing, so you can actually put your information out there. If you think about the big shift that has happened, people are using their computers to do a lot more multi-media things than they used to in the past—videos, movies, music, all this stuff is coming back—so there is a trend going towards more and more evaluating whether you want to store your information on the network and you want to use the application on the network or you want to have it in your client. The second trend that we are also seeing is a lot more open systems type development, the Linux type stuff, which is out there, which is open source, where a whole community of programmers can design different widgets to make it more and more efficient and more and more useful, so it is not just owned by any one company, any one particular operator or exiting developer, you can have hundreds of thousands of really smart technical people who can say, "Guess what? I found a new way to make this thing more efficient." You are seeing more and more an adoption of open source type stuff, whether it is from Sana, or even Java Protocols or Ajax Protocols and stuff like that. So we believe that you are going to get more of a cloud computing type scenario as we go along, but all three of them are in the market at the same time right now.

  Q567  Paul Farrelly: I want to go off at a completely different tangent for a moment. I have accidentally missed out Google Mail from my previous list of your category killer products and services. If I were to sign up to Google now (and it is not just a question for you but for any internet service provider and the likes of Yahoo), how could I be sure that the CIA, MI6, the Bundes Nachrichtendienst or the Chinese Politbureau, for all I know, is not reading my emails, possibly with the help of search technology pioneered by the likes of yourselves?

  Mr McLaughlin: One thing you have to keep in mind (and this is just to set the stage) is that when you send your emails out over the network they are traversing through various ISPs, various backbone providers, and it is often said that your email is about as secure as sending a postcard through the postal system. Because of the vast volumes of information that fly over the internet, the odds that any individual email is going to be stopped, blocked, reviewed, seen, are approximating zero. It turns out to be an incredibly secure system, if what you are concerned about is eavesdropping, but you have to be aware that the emails that you send, whether they are from your desktop, through Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, Gmail, whatever service, they are going across a network and at various points in the network it is, under British law, under US law, possible for intelligence agencies to go through formal legal process, get court orders, and for those emails to be subject to eavesdropping. I cannot say anything more than that. We all have written laws that give our law enforcement and intelligence agencies those capabilities and they do exist, and I think it is appropriate for people to be aware of that.

  Q568  Paul Farrelly: So it is not an issue for companies like yourself to provide a privacy guarantee?

  Mr McLaughlin: We cannot guarantee what your laws would not allow us to guarantee. We handle email with as much security as can be baked into the kind of service that we offer. At the same time, when governments and their agencies follow formal legal process, we respect that formal legal process. I should also say that we are conscious about where we host our services. It is not that we have our servers sitting in every country in the world. We try to pay attention to make sure that we feel our users are being adequately protected by the rule of law and formal legal process that they expect.

  Q569  Paul Farrelly: A separate question on a similar them, if I were, for instance, a Nigerian fraudster and set myself up on Google Mail to produce all these letter of credits scams, would you have a policy of shutting me down?

  Mr McLaughlin: Yes, if you were using Gmail to do spams. We have automated ways to try to detect where that is happening. We shut accounts down, we will also kick out the subscriber if we think that he or she is doing that.

  Q570  Paul Farrelly: So you have your own search techniques applied to users?

  Mr Arora: We have spam folders.

  Mr McLaughlin: Yes, we have spam folders. If an individual is sending out 10,000 emails over the course of 20 minutes, our systems are pretty smart about detecting that.

  Q571  Paul Farrelly: And for people generally who might not be dealing in such volume whom you would deem inappropriate users of your service, you would proactively shut them down rather than wait for complaints?

  Mr McLaughlin: Either could happen, depending. As you said, for spam that is pretty straightforward for us to detect, but we also would respond to complaints.

  Q572  Chairman: Can I return to the subject Alan raised, which is the protection of the creator's content. We have heard evidence in this inquiry from the music industry, from the film industry, all of whom are clearly suffering considerable damage from the distribution of illegal pirate material. To give an example, the British Record Industry flagged up a particular site in Russia—I think it is "ALLOFMP3"—which is distributing copyright material. Why can you not block access? Why can you not ensure that your search engines do not flag up sites which are clearly distributing illegal material?

  Mr McLaughlin: Let me say this. If you think about Google as basically the table of contents or may be the index at the back of the book. Taking something out of our index does not take it off of the internet. People say, "Well, but you are very important and you would make it harder for people to find." That is true, but, of course, finding out about the existence of something that is in fact really out there is not necessarily an indication that you are going to be downloading illegal music. For our purposes, we focus on things that are illegal, we leave it to governments to define the things that are illegal and we respond to it. It points out this problem of transnational co-ordination. If the site is hosted in a country where that site is perfectly legal—gambling is the example I mentioned earlier, but it is a good case, legal in some places illegal in other places—it is very difficult to try to shut off all access to something you do not like as long as it is legal somewhere else. I think we take these complaints from copyright owners very seriously. There are some kinds of sites that we do take out of the search index because they violate our policies and sometimes they are copyright-related, they host infringement themselves. There are sites, for example, that will republish credit card numbers or national ID numbers, and we take those out of our search index. I do not want to make it sound like every time we think that something bad is going on in the internet we will just erase any mention of it from our search index, because that does not solve the underlying problem. The underlying problem for the content industry is that these sites are out there and they exist. Fundamentally, government to government co-operation is going to be essential if those sites are going to be taken care of.

  Q573  Chairman: It does not solve the problem, because there will always be countries which are much more lax in enforcing copyright law, so providers of illegal content will go and base themselves in countries where they are not going to get cracked down on, but if you were to make it much harder for the teenager in his bedroom to find those sites, obviously that would be a major contribution. You accept your responsibility to tackle other types of criminal activity. Many people think copyright is the one which is not getting nearly enough attention and yet it is and the illegal distribution of copyright material which is doing tremendous damage to our creative industry.

  Mr McLaughlin: I have to say, I hear the point and from Google's perspective we take the needs of copyright owners very seriously. As a company that connects people to information, it matters to us that content companies feel comfortable generating information and putting it on the internet, making it available to people. We want to help them make money; we also want to help them fight piracy. Part of that is providing avenues for people to buy and sell stuff at prices that they are willing to pay and that contact providers are willing to offer, but, to be honest, Google is not a major engine for people finding copyright infringement material. Peer-to-peer services and services like BitTorrent, which is a form of peer-to-peer, are vastly more important, frankly, than Google is. What is tricky is that technologies like BitTorrent, for example, can be used for copyright infringement absolutely; they can also be used for perfectly good purposes as well. For example, on BitTorrent you can find historical speeches, documents, war-time documentaries, old news reels that are out of copyright. It is not that everything available through that service is copyright infringement. So, just erasing the service from our search index or references to the service from our search index would not really change anything and would also have collateral damage on the side. We are certainly willing to co-operate, and we are constantly talking to the content industries to figure out ways that we can help them make money, ways that we can help them combat piracy, but I do not want to give you the answer that I think that simply erasing a troubling site out of our search index is going to solve the problem. We just do not think it will.

  Q574  Mr Sanders: Am I right in thinking that on YouTube you are not allowed to have a piece of content for more than 10 minutes and that what you see happening is people posting a half-hour episode in three ten-million chunks? Will you not take action against that to protect the copyright holder's interest?

  Mr McLaughlin: I have to give you an answer for Google Video, because, as I said, we have not done the YouTube acquisition yet. We do not have time limits on Google Video, but let us suppose we did. If copyright infringement is copyright infringement, it does not matter if it is ten-minute chunks, or 30-minute chunks, or whatever. If it is infringing content, then it is against our policies and we will want to take it down.

  Q575  Mr Sanders: So the YouTube policy of not acting on threats you would alter in the future? That is quite significant, because a lot of people go to YouTube because they can get all the episodes of some obscure soap operas and things?

  Mr McLaughlin: I cannot speak to anything that we would do with YouTube because we are a month away from completing that acquisition. For Google Video, it does not matter to us whether the copyright infringement is short or long; if it is infringement then we will take it down.

  Q576  Mr Sanders: The point is that YouTube seems to have a rule that it does not enforce. What you seem to be doing is not to have a rule at all?

  Mr McLaughlin: I guess I find myself giving the same answer. If is copyright infringement, we take it down and it does not really matter to us what the chunk is. I cannot say anything about YouTube since they are not our company.

  Q577  Chairman: Can I press you slightly on YouTube, because although you have not yet completed the acquisition, nevertheless you are clearly intent on doing so. It was suggested that one or two others of the potential purchasers of YouTube backed off because they were concerned about the potential liability for copyright infringement. It has certainly also been suggested that until now people did not think it was worth suing YouTube, but if Google is the owner it suddenly becomes worth doing so. Are you putting aside a very large pot of money to settle copyright infringement cases when you take it on?

  Mr Arora: As Andrew said before, there is not a lot we can say about what we will do with YouTube because it is still in the process of due diligence and we have not closed the acquisition, but I will repeat what Andrew has said. We intend to uphold copyright, we believe it is very important as far as the creative process, and it is evident from our policies as Google Video or Google News or Google Books, and any acquisition in the future is not going to change Google's view on copyright.

  Q578  Chairman: You said in your submission that Google News is a good example of how Google protects copyright in practice. You are also subject to quite a number of law suits in relation to the content on Google News, so clearly that is not a universally held view. How do you respond to the fact that actually what you are doing is taking the creation of newspapers and making it available in breach of copyright?

  Mr Arora: Let me talk about our view of Google News and then Andrew will jump in and talk about the copyright part. As I mentioned earlier, Google News is a service which allows people to be able to search for where the news is as opposed to reading the news on Google News. We believe it is an important function. It is almost like if you go to a library and there is no index of where to find what is in the library, a library would be of very little use if you had to walk through all the aisles to find out where the thing that you are looking for is. So, from our perspective, Google News is sort of an index where if you look for something it very quickly will tell you where the original content is and where you can find what you are looking for. As regards that not being held as a universal view and the lawsuit part, Andrew can jump in and talk about.

  Mr McLaughlin: Google really is a good example of how you can strike the right balance. Most newspapers and news sites want people to come to their site, they want people to find their stories, they want people to see their advertising, they want people to come. What Google News does, it basically says, okay, for these 5,000 news sources we will be constantly checking their home pages to see what is there, and then we present it to people who come to Google News so that they can see the headlines, very short snippets of what the story is about, and then, if they really want to read the story, they have to click through and go to the underlying site. Our experience with newspapers is that, generally speaking, they find that Google News drives significant amounts of traffic, and the way that we protect copyright is any newspaper that does not want to be included in Google News we will take out, we will not include them. The same thing, by the way, I should say, is true for Google's search index in general. We do not believe that we have to search every single thing that is out there on the web. Generally speaking, people putting their content on the web want it to be found; so in general people want it to be searchable, they want it to be in Google, they want people to be able to find it, but if they do not, that is their choice, and, even if we were legally entitled to keep them in our search index, we do not, we respect their wishes anyway. The same thing is true for Google News. We think it is a nice way to present news content, we think we drive significant amounts of users and eyeballs and traffic to their web sites and, if you talk to the newspapers that have got experience with Google News, I would venture to guess that they would say that they are pleased because a lot of traffic comes their way thanks to Google News that they were not getting before the existence of Google News. Again, we drive the traffic, they get to have the users come to their site and, if they do not want to be part of this, they just have to tell us and we will take them out.

  Q579  Chairman: Are you going to appeal against the Belgian court judgment?

  Mr McLaughlin: Yes.

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