Google “refusing to remove links to counterfeiting sites”; study

When Google is told that it is returning search results that lead to websites that sell counterfeit products, it takes no action, says a study by UK brand protection company Incopro.

The research – which focused on pharmaceuticals, car parts, children’s products, safety equipment and white goods – found that up to 60 per cent of results returned by search engines lead consumers to websites that sell fake and possibly dangerous goods.

It also found that Google fails to de-index sites linked to counterfeits, even if that is the primary function of the site, according to Incopro.

And that refusal is out of step with other tech companies like Instagram, eBay and Amazon who will take action if provided with evidence of intellectual property (IP) infringement, as well as Google’s own policy in other areas of its business, for example it will remove a URL from its search index if it is told that the page itself infringes copyright.

Pulling out some examples from its research, Incopro says that six out of 10 of Google’s first-page results for the search term “Bactrim” – an antibiotic – were for sites that were very likely to operating unlawfully.

It was a similar result in the children’s product category. A third of the results (three of nine) returned for “Comotomo teether” pointed to “potentially harmful products that misuse the Comotomo trademark,” says the report.

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"Google takes the view that it is not (and cannot be) a ‘publisher’ when it is told that it is returning results for counterfeit web pages and so it does nothing,” says Incopro.

“If Google did remove these websites from their index these sites would be starved of oxygen and would fail, and there are case studies that prove so. The people who operate infringing websites don’t typically pay for advertising. Instead, they often rely on organic search, knowing that they will be found when consumers use search engines to look for brands or products.”

In a response to the study reported by Incopro, Google said: “It’s instructive to note that Web Search results are dynamic, change constantly, and can vary by jurisdiction or individual user.”

It goes on: “Google aggregates information published on the web returning users different web pages that relate to their search requests but we don’t make any claims about the content of these pages.”

The company says its usual practice is to evaluate court orders issued against third parties and, “where appropriate”, voluntarily remove content from its search results.

The report says changes in case law means search engines could find themselves liable in cases involving counterfeits, and Incopro says Google and other search providers should cooperate with rights holders to build a “scalable process that delivers removal of counterfeit locations from search results at scale.”

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