A new study by brand protection company Incopro found that up to 60% of results returned by search engines lead consumers to websites that sell fake and possibly dangerous goods. Incopro is calling on search engines to remove the links to these websites in their search results (this process is known as de-indexing).
The study researched specific products in five key industries: pharmaceutical, car parts, children’s products, safety equipment & white goods and revealed several worrying insights, including:
- In pharmaceuticals, six in 10 of Google’s first-page results following searches for the antibiotic Bactrim were for locations very likely to be operating unlawfully;
- In the children’s products category, a third of search results for a “Comotomo teether” featured potentially harmful products;
- In the white goods sector, a search for refrigerator filters repeatedly directed consumers towards a website selling counterfeit goods.
“Consumers are at risk of buying counterfeit and possibly harmful products, as a result of clicking through results generated by search engines they trust,” Simon Baggs, co-founder and CEO at Incopro, said. “At best, these products will be poor quality or below-standard; at worst, they put consumers at risk of harm, particularly when buying pharmaceuticals or safety goods. It is high time search engines played their part in putting a stop to the fakers, rather than encouraging them to proliferate through inaction.”
When Incopro’s lawyers asked Google to clarify its position on de-indexing websites where trademarks are infringed, the search giant confirmed that it did not “at this time de-index URLs or websites from its Web Search index on trademark grounds upon request.” In response to Incopro’s findings it promised only to “evaluate court orders issued against third parties and, where appropriate (with content specifically identified), voluntarily remove content from our Web Search results.”
Google also warned it would continue to “seek relief from orders against it.” This means rights holders have to go through legal channels to protect their rights and consumer safety, a process that is slow, expensive and not scalable. There is a loophole in the law which means that search engines are not obliged to remove links that lead to platforms displaying items that infringe intellectual property rights or trademarks, essentially websites selling fake goods.
Incopro is calling for search engines to work more closely with intellectual property owners and brands to remove infringing websites from the results they present to consumers. Without cooperation from the search engines, Incopro believes new legislation is required to force them to act. Other tech giants, such as Amazon and Facebook are already covered by such laws, but these do not extend to search engines.
Baggs said: “At Incopro, we believe it is essential for the broadest range of stakeholders to work together to combat illegal activity online. That must include the search engine community, which currently makes life too easy for unscrupulous operators to target consumers with fake products and services.”
Leading IP barristers, Richard Spearman QC of 39 Essex Chambers and Mark Vanhegan QC of 11 South Square, have written a legal opinion on the Incopro research. They concluded: “If search engine providers can be subjected to the rule of law in other areas, such as in respect of anti-competitive practices, there is no reason in principle why this cannot be achieved in the field of intellectual property.
“Given that legal backdrop, it is perhaps surprising to read in the White Paper that a number of search engine providers seem to have adopted the approach that they should not take any steps to block or delist even websites which they know to be marketing only trade mark infringing goods. For the reasons explained above, we consider that this may be a too simplistic and legally risky approach.”
Read the white paper here
Incopro is an international technology business headquartered in London, with operations across Europe, North America and Asia. Incopro protects over 1,000 brands including household names like Ted Baker, Dr Marten’s, Lindt and Superdry from infringement of intellectual property online. Its technology collects data to detect patterns of online infringement, which ultimately helps to keep consumers safe while systematically tackling counterfeiting. www.incoproip.com