Google and Microsoft’s Bing have both pledged to make it more difficult for internet users to download pirated content from torrent sites such as KickAss Torrents, the Pirate Bay and RARBG.
Under pressure from the UK government – which last month launched a new initiative with a number of major internet service providers (ISPs) to crackdown on illegal file sharing – the two tech giants have agreed to tweak their algorithms to ensure pirated material is bumped down search results.
Both companies have signed up to a voluntary code of practice with the entertainment industry after talks brokered by the UK Intellectual Property Office.
The groups behind the new initiative said the move would make it more likely that internet users would be directed towards legitimate content, reducing the chances of people stumbling on pirated material unwittingly.
Announcing the agreement, UK Minister of State Jo Johnson said: “Search engines play a vital role in helping consumers discover content online. Their relationship with our world-leading creative industries needs to be collaborative.
“Consumers are increasingly heading online for music, films, e-books, and a wide variety of other content. It is essential that they are presented with links to legitimate websites and services, not provided with links to pirate sites.”
Welcoming the move, Eddy Leviten, chief of the Alliance for Intellectual Property, told the BBC: “Sometimes people will search for something and they will end up unwittingly being taken to a pirated piece of content.
“What we want to ensure is that the results at the top of the search engines are the genuine ones. It is about protecting people who use the internet, but also protecting the creators of that material too.”
The agreement was announced as Swedish telecoms giant Telia said it would refuse to comply with a court ruling that appeared to compel the country’s ISPs to block access to the Pirate Bay.
Telia said the court ruling did not apply to the services it provides, and that it would only block access to the site if it was served with a court order specifically instructing it to do so.
It has become common practice for European ISPs to block access to major torrent sites such as the Pirate Bay and KickAss Torrents, but Swedish web firms have resisted pressure from rights holders, often arguing it is not their job to act as copyright police.
Even in countries where torrent-sharing platforms are widely blocked by ISPs, users are still able to access them through “mirror” sites, which route requests through proxy servers.
Torrent sites that share pirated copyright material make hundreds of millions of euros a year selling advertising. They are also major distributors of malware, and are thought to infect around 12 million users every month, according to a 2015 report conducted by researchers at the Digital Citizens Alliance and RiskIQ.