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Search Engines Power Piracy, Research Shows

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A study finds no evidence that the algorithm change made by Google has had any impact on reducing the amount of traffic referred to infringing websites.

LONDON – Web search engines play a "significant role" in introducing audiences to pirated movies and TV shows online, according to research published on Wednesday.

And the research indicates that most of the blame lies firmly at Google's door.

According to the research findings, published on both sides of the Atlantic by the Motion Picture Association of America, 74 percent of consumers use search engines to access pirate sites for the first time.

And the vast majority -- 82 percent -- of queries that led to the "infringing content" came from the largest search engine, Google.

STORY: Europe's Antitrust Watchdog Demands More Concessions From Google 

Well over half the searches, at 58 percent, that led to infringing content contain only general keywords like the titles of recent films or TV shows, or phrases related to watching films or TV online.

The study shows that such searches do not include specific keywords aimed at finding illegitimate content, indicating that consumers were not initially looking for infringing content.

The study also found no evidence that the algorithm change made by Google a year ago has had any impact on reducing the amount of search traffic referred to infringing websites.

The share of referral traffic from Google to sites included in the Google Transparency Report remained flat in the three months following Google’s implementation of the change last August.

That change had repped the hopes of the entertainment industry that the internet giant could suppress links to pirated copy online.

Other key findings of the study include between 2010 and 2012, search engines played a role in 20 percent of all sessions where consumers accessed pirated copies.

That represents nearly five billion visits per year, or 400 million visits per month to a sample set of infringing sites, based on analysis by the Motion Picture Association.

MPAA chairman, senator Chris Dodd said: "Search engines bear responsibility for introducing people to infringing content -- even people who aren’t actively looking for it. The television and movie community is working every day to develop new and innovative ways to watch content online, and as the Internet’s gatekeepers, search engines share a responsibility to play a constructive role in not directing audiences to illegitimate content."

Speaking from Capitol Hill in Washington, Rep. Adam Schiff said: "This study shows that there is much more that search engines must do when it comes to pointing consumers towards legal outlets. By supporting legitimate sites rather than illegal ones, everyone wins -- content creators, the U.S. economy, and consumers themselves."

MPA president and managing director of Europe, the Middle East and Africa Chris Marcich chimed in from the U.K.

"Search engines are incredibly skillful, yet they are still leading consumers to illegal money-making sites even when the searcher is seeking legal content online. Their algorithm is capable of much better, and we count on them to deliver and back up their stated intentions. Google’s much publicized efforts seem to have had little impact to date," said Marcich.

Marcich described the study as a "critical reminder that no comprehensive effort to curb online content theft will be effective without meaningful commitment from search engines."

He said the ball was now firmly in the search engine's court to "step up and take real action to stop directing consumers to infringing sites."

U.K. trade body the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television's chief executive John McVay described last year's declaration by Google as "another empty promise" which has had "no impact whatsoever on piracy."

Said McVay: "This study proves what we all suspected: that search engines contribute to driving consumers to pirate sites. Unlike technology start-ups, TV and film require substantial upfront investment; intellectual property is the backbone of this investment. Without strong IP protection, jobs and investment are at risk. Search needs to start taking real action rather than facilitating piracy."