Friday, July 03, 2009

Search engines and safe harbours

Danny O'Brien has a strong piece in today's Irish Times arguing that Irish and European law is holding back development of online businesses by imposing excessive liabilities on search engines. Here's an excerpt:
In the US, the law specifically carves out a protection against liability for "information location tools" - search engines, in other words.

It is the same sort of "safe harbour" that protects web hosting services from being sued over their customers' content and internet service providers and mobile phone companies from being penalised for making temporary caches of websites to cut down connection costs and speed up connections.

No such protection exists in Europe for search engines. However the very fact that these US search engine companies are so large and, moreover, have large subsidiaries in Europe and beyond, gives them a little more protection from midnight raids than start-ups like SurfTheChannel.

It also provides them with something of an economic advantage over any upstart European search engine.

When Bing, the new Microsoft search engine, was launched, only a few noted that its "video search" effectively embedded copyrighted content on to Microsoft's own website (try typing The Office into its video search and see what happens).

If that had been a European search engine launched by a plucky new start-up, you can bet that its lawyers would have warned them off such a feature.

This effectively means that one of the biggest selling points of Microsoft's Google competitor is out of bounds for any European contender...

Perhaps the best solution would be for individual countries in the EU to make themselves more business friendly.

The e-commerce directive already allows individual nations to carve out wider exceptions than those listed.

Countries like Spain, Portugal and Austria have all included some protection to search engines, as well as anyone providing a weblink to another website.

Perhaps Ireland could create its own "safe harbour" in national law for new internet start-ups.

That way, we could draw investment from other countries who want the benefit of being able to find what we need on the internet but are scared to alienate the vested interests who would rather choke it.
(emphasis added)
I'm in agreement with Danny and would go one step further - rather than limit a new immunity to search engines, we should extend it to other online intermediaries such as content aggregators. This 2006 report from the UK Department of Trade and Industry is a good starting point for understanding how content aggregators and others are deterred by possible liability.

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