Google, the company behind the popular Web search engine, has been playing a complicated game recently that involves the Church of Scientology and a controversial copyright law.
Legal experts say the episode highlights problems with the law that can make companies or individuals liable for linking to sites they do not control. And it has turned Google, whose business is built around a database of two billion Web pages, into a quiet campaigner for the freedom to link.
The church sent a complaint to Google last month, saying that its search results for "Scientology" included links to copyrighted church material that appears on a Web site critical of the church. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, which was intended to make it easier for copyright holders to fight piracy, the complaint meant that Google was required to remove those links quickly or risk being sued for contributing to copyright infringement.
The site in question, Operation Clambake (www.xenu.net), is based in Norway, beyond the reach of the United States copyright act. The site portrays the church as a greedy cult that exploits its members and harasses critics. Andreas Heldal-Lund, the site's owner, says the posting of church materials, including some internal documents and pictures of church leaders, is allowable under the "fair use" provisions of internationally recognized copyright law.
When Google responded to the church's complaint by removing the links to the Scientology material, techies and free-speech advocates accused Google of censoring its search results. Google also briefly removed the link to Operation Clambake's home page but soon restored it, saying the removal had been a mistake.
At that point, according to Matthew Cutts, a software engineer at Google, it started developing a better way to handle such complaints. "We respond very quickly to challenges, and not just technical challenges but also these sort of interesting, delicate situations, as well," Mr. Cutts said.
Under Google's new policy, when it receives a complaint that causes it to remove links from its index, it will give a copy of the complaint to the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse (chillingeffects.org). Chilling Effects is a project of a civil liberties advocacy group called the Electronic Frontier Foundation and several law schools. It it offers information about Internet rights issues.
In the new procedure, Google informs its users when a link has been removed from a set of search results and directs them to the Chilling Effects site. For example, a search for the word "helatrobus," which appears in some Scientology texts, brings up a page of results with this notice at the bottom: "In response to a complaint we received under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, we have removed one result(s) from this page. If you wish, you may read the D.M.C.A. complaint for these removed results."
The notice includes a link to Scientology's complaint on chillingeffects.org, which lists the Web addresses of the material to which Google no longer links. The result is that a complaint could end up drawing more attention to the very pages it is trying to block.
Mr. Cutts said Google started linking to chillingeffects.org early this month but made no announcement, so it took a while for word to go around online. Meanwhile, Scientology sent Google two more complaints, citing pages within copies of the Operation Clambake site on other servers. All three complaints are now on the Chilling Effects site.
Don Marti, the technical editor of Linux Journal, first wrote about Google's move on the magazine's site. He said he had been so upset about the company's initial response to the Scientologists that he organized a small group of protesters who visited Google's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., where he also lives. Mr. Marti says he now applauds Google's efforts to make the process more transparent. If a letter of complaint simply makes a site more popular, "only a fool would send one," he said.
Helena Kobrin, a lawyer representing Scientology at the law firm of Moxon & Kobrin in Los Angeles, said that Google's use of the letters of complaint would not discourage the church from pursuing further complaints if necessary and that there was nothing in the letters that needed to be hidden. "I think they show very graphically to people that the only thing we're trying to do is protect copyrights," she said.
As part of its new process for handling complaints, Mr. Cutts said, Google added more information on its site explaining how site owners could have their links restored by filing a countercomplaint with Google. (The required forms can be downloaded from chillingeffects.org.) If site owners take this step, he said, they accept responsibility for the contents of their pages.
Mr. Heldal-Lund, a Norwegian citizen, said he would not file a countercomplaint because it would put him under the jurisdiction of United States law. He said that he regretted making so much trouble for Google but was glad that the incident had highlighted the church's pursuit of its critics.
The church, which has beliefs based on the idea that people need to release themselves from trauma suffered in past lives, has taken a keen interest in the Internet since 1994, when someone posted secret church teachings on an online discussion group. Critics say the church guards its teachings closely because it wants its followers to pay for access to higher levels of instruction. The church says that these payments are donations and that it is simply seeking to protect its rights online.
With its Chilling Effects partnership, Google is subtly making the point that the right to link is important to its business and to the health of the Web, said David G. Post, a law professor at Temple University who specializes in Internet issues.
"This is an example where copyright law is being used in conflict with free connectivity and free expression on the Net," he said. Dr. Post said Google's situation highlighted the need for more awareness of copyright issues, including pending legislation that is more restrictive than the 1998 law. The measure is backed by entertainment giants like Walt Disney, but technology companies like Intel have come out against it, saying it would hurt consumers and slow innovation.
Mr. Cutts said that the links to the complaints were not a political statement, just a way to "make sure our users get all of the information that they need." He said that Google had no official position on the copyright act and that so far it had not been involved in political activity or lobbying. But he said it "might take an interest in more of those issues."
The copyright controversy has had an interesting side effect for Operation Clambake. The Google software judges the importance of a page in part by looking at how many other pages link to it. Scientology's complaint set off a flurry of linking to the critics' site, pushing it up two spots to No. 2 in the search results for "Scientology" — just below the church's official site.
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