Piracy web sites – perils and profits


The British Bankers Association published some interesting research last week about the extent to which children aged 11 or below were already involved in buying goods and services online.  Seemingly

58 percent of children bought something online or had something bought for them online for the first time before they were 12

Unsurprisingly apps downloaded to a tablet or a smartphone were key items but, irrespective of what they were buying, the BBA study reminds us, yet again, that kids are economic actors in their own right. We don’t need the Oracle at Delphi to tell us young people’s engagement with ecommerce is likely to grow, as ecommerce as a whole continues to grow. This has all sorts of implications.

The ground rules need to be fair and age appropriate

Many online businesses know kids have money and they want to persuade them to part with some of it in their favour. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. On the contrary shopping online can be an extremely smart thing to do, not least because you often get better prices there. Kids need to learn how to shop wisely but the increasing numbers of juvenile cyber shoppers underlines the importance of everyone ensuring the ground rules are fair and that children are not being taken advantage of or influenced in ways which are inappropriate to persons of their age.

In the real world we have over many years evolved a series of rules and regulations to protect children from unfair commercial exploitation. A growing number of studies are showing these do not appear to be getting picked up and translated into the way lots of online businesses work. Inter alia that brings me to the question of advertising and pirate web sites.

Piracy sites pose a number of threats

The children’s organizations began to get exercised about piracy web sites several years ago. We don’t like sites that encourage children and young people to believe  it’s OK to steal. Directly or indirectly such sites were drawing children into an  environment where not paying for other people’s labours or other people’s stuff is promoted as being not only good but cool. It isn’t.

However, it turned out that some of the unsavoury characters who populate these rip off sites and services were also providing access to materials which had perhaps not been commercially produced for sale but which you nonetheless most definitely would not want youngsters to be exposed to. I’m thinking, for example, about collections of pictures that had obviously been stolen from a Mortuary which showed the mangled bodies of car crash victims. Then there were videos of people being beheaded by terrorist groups or gangsters, or images of the Ku Klux Klan doing their thing in the Southern States.

A new twist in the tale – a message from Down Under 

In August Dr Paul Watters of the University of Ballarat in Australia published A systematic approach to measuring advertising transparency online: an Australian case study. OK so the guy is definitely going to win the prize for least informative and least riveting title for any document published in 2013 but you should make an effort to read it anyway. It is not very long and, despite the contra indications, it is in fact rather well written. Here is his opening shot

Illicit sharing of…..movies and TV remains a persistent and ongoing threat to the viability of Australia’s creative industries. The revenue model that underpins torrent indexing and file locker sites which enable this sharing – like much of the World Wide Web – is based on advertising. Recent research has suggested that there has been a shift from mainstream to High-Risk advertising on these sites.

In this study, advertising targeting Australians was analysed from the Top 500 Google upheld DMCA complaints for movies and TV distributed by Village Roadshow and major Hollywood studios, with 10 sites from each complaint sampled for all ads displayed.

High Risk

Watters defines High Risk advertising as follows

High-Risk ads are those promoting goods or services which fall outside the legitimate economy or white market, may be illegal or restricted within certain jurisdictions but not others, or may be fake or counterfeit. Examples include the sex industry, gambling and suspicious software/malware, such as antivirus software which actually installs a Trojan Horse on a user’s system. Many of the ads are likely to fall into scam categories described by Stabek et al (2009).

Phishing scams and malware are common

Only 1% of the advertising on the sites Watters looked at came from mainstream businesses. Perhaps after reading his report even that tiny fraction is likely to disappear. 99% of all the adverts Watters found in his study fell into his High Risk category. 20% were linked to sex in one way or another e.g. offering spurious penis enhancement products or access to hard core porn. The largest group – 46% – was classed as malware and 3% was associated with offshore, unregulated gambling.

These data rather blow a hole in the carefully nurtured image of piracy sites somehow being a modern version of Robin Hood. They ain’t. Quite the opposite. If ever it was in any doubt, by accepting advertising from these dubious sources their owners are showing that their snouts are well and truly in the sort of money trough no respectable or ethical business would go near in a million years.

One report, one country? No.

True enough this is one report from one country but as the bibliography in Watters’ paper shows this is by no means an aberration. For instance a 2012 report commissioned by Google and the UK music industry’s Performing Rights Society showed that roughly 86% of the advertising on the sites they looked at came from “outside the mainstream”. I think that’s a euphemism.

Parents who hitherto may not have bothered much about their children’s engagement with piracy need to know about this aspect, about what else their children might be tangling with. Right now I’m afraid largely they don’t. The wider public also need to know more about the reality of piracy. That might help strip away some of the well-honed myths the pirates have spun around themselves.

Heroes no more 

Please. No more talk of piracy web sites as heroic combatants in a war of liberation against the suits. They are not striking a blow for the little guys. They are harming working musicians, actors, software designers and all the ancillary staff who depend on them – the door keepers, the cleaners, the chauffeurs, the book-keepers, the people in the sandwich bar around the corner. And the pirates are doing it for one very simple, uncomplicated reason: money that is headed for their own pockets, not the poor box. Enough already.

About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International and is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John is now or has formerly been an Adviser to the Council of Europe, the UN (ITU), the EU and UNICEF. John has advised many of the world's largest technology companies on online child safety. John's skill as a writer has also been widely recognised. http://johncarrcv.blogspot.com
This entry was posted in Advertising, Age verification, Default settings, E-commerce, Privacy, Regulation, Self-regulation. Bookmark the permalink.