Bits of the industry have a lot to answer for

The Digital Citizens Alliance has carried out some mega research into the financial basis of piracy web sites. Specifically they looked at how advertising is helping to keep them afloat. It is the second such publication. The first one I missed. It came out in February 2014 and was called  Good Money Gone Bad. The sequel arrived a couple of weeks ago and the title alone tells us something important Good Money Still Going Bad.

Huge sums involved

I was astonished by the  amount of money the piracy sites were raking in. In the 2014 report the researchers estimated that, in 2013, the 596 sites they looked at generated around US$ 227 millions in ad revenues.  The 30 largest averaged over US$ 4 millions and some took in excess of US$ 6 million. Even small piracy sites were taking over US$100,000 per annum. This is not pocket change and underlines, yet again, the real nature of piracy sites. Modern-day Robin Hoods they are not.  Piracy sites are run by villains dedicated to their own personal enrichment off the back of other people’s  work.

In the 2015 document  589 piracy sites  were included in the sample. It was calculated that between them they had earned around US$ 209 millions.  Down a little bit although not much. But what they found in 2015 was that over 40% of the sites they had examined first time around had either closed  down or the revenues  had shrunk to  a point where they fell outside the criteria for inclusion in the research sample.

One conclusion we can draw from this high rate of attrition – and the fact that  so many new sites had sprung up to replace the disappeared ones – is that the barriers to entry to being a pirate  and starting to  collect dollars from ads must be low.

A simple step?

How difficult would it be for an ad network to inspect any new site or company with whom it starts to place clients’  ads? Before putting business their way could they not satisfy themselves that they are not going to be aiding and abetting piracy? And how hard would it be for brands to tell their advertising agencies or whoever places ads for them that they must also ensure their products do not get tainted by association with these dismal places.

Premium Brands are involved

It is surprising that, with all the publicity there has been around the issue of piracy and the sites that make it possible 132 “premium brands” were nevertheless  still found advertising their wares on piracy sites. This was up from 89 in the first study.  How did that happen? See below for more details and names.

Video-streaming piracy sites on the march

We all know that across the piece video streaming is growing rapidly on the internet but Bad Money reveals  that so are piracy sites that are based on streaming, up 40% from the first report. I’d like to look into this dimension more closely at some point – or at any rate the cops should – because of the way in which video streaming sites are starting to become a major feature in child sex abuse cases. Are there links?

Not good places for kids

Which brings me full circle to my primary interest which is the way piracy sites not only draw children and young people into believing it is OK to steal but also  how they put children and young people at risk in other ways.

For several reasons piracy sites are singularly unsuitable environments for youngsters  but one of them relates to the sort of ads they routinely carry. 17%  of the sites surveyed in the 2015 report carried  ads for “adult content”. This typically includes hard core porn and prostitution services, and that’s on top of the malware and fraudsters waiting for inexperienced or unsuspecting prey.  Then there’s the dodgy pharmaceuticals. In the UK we have had a number of reports of young people dying  because they consumed fake drugs they bought on the internet only to be poisoned by them.

Some of the famous names

Appendix E  of Bad Money lists some of the premium brands whose ads they found on piracy sites.  It’s quite an eye opener: Ford, Capital One, Nike, eBay,  ING Bank, Jeep, Volkswagen. It goes on. Have a look for yourself. And in Appendix F  we find the name of the ad networks that placed some or all of these ads on the piracy sites.

These guys need to act

Any company whose name appears in Appendix E  should be ashamed of itself. I am sure they did not intend to support thieves who put kids at risk but by failing to be sufficiently diligent in the way they allowed their ads to be placed they have truly fallen down on the job and must do better.

I know a lot less about how ad networks operate. The names of the networks listed in Appendix F will be less well known  to most people but they are all out there now in the public domain. At the very least the people running these networks should pause for thought.Some of the ones listed in Appendix F may not care about supporting piracy sites but I would be surprised if that applied to all or most.

Piracy sites are not philanthropic. They are about making money. Everyone should try to ensure sure they don’t make any more. Our kids deserve nothing less.

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.
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