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Google is the problem, U2 manager tells MIDEM

By | Published on Monday 30 January 2012

Paul McGuinness

U2 manager Paul McGuinness’s vehement demands at MIDEM 2008 that it was high time the internet service providers stood up and took some action against online piracy was one of the undisputed stand out moments of the annual music business conference in recent years, so most delegate eyes were on McGuinness again this weekend as he returned to the MIDEM stage in Cannes.

True, moves in the subsequent four years to persuade and force the ISPs to act – by suspending the net access of file-sharing customers and/or blocking access to copyright infringing websites – have had limited success worldwide, but McGuinness’s 2008 speech certainly buoyed those in the industry who had been quietly fuming about ISP inaction on piracy for years, so everyone in Cannes this weekend was keen to see if he’d have any more bold words this time round and, if so, who would the enemy be in 2012?

As it turns out, it’s Google which is most pissing off McGuinness at the moment, partly for so vocally supporting the campaign against web-blocking legislation in the US earlier this month, and partly for not doing enough – in his opinion – to stop illegal sources of content from appearing high up in artist searches on the web giant’s core search engine platform.

On Google’s support for the recent Wikipedia-led campaign against the web-blocking SOPA and PIPA proposals working their way through US Congress, McGuinness said that we should “never underestimate the ability of a monopoly to defend itself”. Google had done a good job at employing the sort of viral marketing and social media campaigning that has become a core part of American politics in the Obama age, he admitted. But that didn’t mean all the people who ticked the search engine’s box to oppose SOPA and PIPA had understood all the arguments. Rather, he argued, the web giant’s one-sided spin on the issue sounded attractive at the time to the company’s customers.

Turning to his more general problems with Google, he said: “It amazes me that Google has not done the right thing. The experience of people when they go on Google and look for U2’s music or PJ Harvey’s music is a shopping list of illegal opportunities to get their songs. They have done nothing meaningful to discourage this fact”.

McGuinness’s comments this weekend follow the publication last week of a submission made by various UK-based entertainment industry trade bodes to media minister Ed Vaizey last November, in which they too expressed frustration that illegal content sources too frequently outrank legit sources on Google and other search engines.

In the confidential document – published following a Freedom Of Information request by the Open Rights Group – the BPI, Motion Picture Association, Premier League and others called on the government to introduce some sort of body to instruct search engines to remove copyright infringing websites from their results, something that would have also been introduced in the US under SOPA. The content industry trade bodies argued that, despite Google voluntarily introducing some measures to prioritise legitimate content in the last year, the situation had actually got worse.

Which is the same view that was also expressed by global record industry trade body the IFPI when it reviewed Google’s anti-piracy measures just before Christmas, in that previously reported document that concluded much more still needed to be done.

Back to MIDEM, and despite his very vocal criticisms of Google et al, McGuinness conceded that the solution was to convince the big tech companies that there are advantages – for their own businesses – in working with the content companies on the piracy issue, rather than relying on politicians who will too often shy away from measures which, on the face of it, will be unpopular with voters. And, he insisted, there is a compelling argument to present to the big web firms, because “ultimately it is in their interests that the flow of content will continue – and that won’t happen unless it’s paid for”.

While Google is the enemy in McGuinness’s eyes, he was more positive about Apple, the tech giant responsible for much of the record industry’s booming digital revenues. While admitting that Apple also drives a hard bargain, he said that working with the company was “challenging but worthwhile”, agreeing with fellow panellist, author Robert Levine, that the team at the iTunes operator were “tough bastards who respect copyright”. The U2 manager was also more positive about the other big emerging player in digital music, Spotify, blaming artist reservations about the streaming platform on the secrecy behind the major labels’ deals with the Swedish company, and adding that he felt such services had a long term future in the wider music business.

MusicAlly has a more detailed summary of the McGuinness session at MIDEM here.