Content Cafe


Fighting criminal activity in the digital advertising supply chain

by Hugh Stephens — 11 May 2020

Tackling the problem of advertising moneys that support pirate content download and streaming sites is an ongoing problem that affects the advertising industry just as much as the content industry. Pirate sites are known homes for sleazy and inappropriate advertising, not to mention malware and other Trojan Horses but they also manage to attract advertising from reputable firms, usually because of weak application of advertising standards or ineffective ad placement practices such as over-reliance on automated placement programs.

In a blog on this topic that I wrote a couple of years ago, I reported on findings from the Trustworthy Accountability Group, (TAG) an advertising industry initiative to fight criminal activity in the digital advertising supply chain.

That study indicated that almost 20 percent of digital ad revenue linked to infringing content in the US in 2016 still came from legitimate premium advertising.

TAG is working to reduce this amount and has a certification program for which companies can qualify if they meet TAG’s standards of compliance with respect to combatting ad fraud, avoiding malware and removing advertising from pirate sites, but the problem persists.

At the most recent meeting of WIPO’s ACE (Advisory Committee on Enforcement) in Geneva in September of 2019, there was a detailed discussion of online piracy, with presentations from Italy, Korea and the EU. The Italian paper, presented by the Italian Communications Regulatory Authority (AGCOM) noted;

“…during its activities, AGCOM noted the presence of a variety of brands on target illicit websites. Examples include leading car producers, payment and betting platforms, and even some pharmaceuticals…

Remarkably, these findings seem to contravene the golden rule of brand safety, which implies that there is a risk of a reputational damage if a brand is associated with illegal content or channels.

Indeed, the combination of a brand and the environment where this brand is advertised can have unexpected effects on the recipients of such advertisements, such as hilarity, when the result is grotesque or inappropriate, and even indignation and anger, when controversial and sensitive issues are involved. This can have unforeseen effects on the appreciation and success of the respective product.”

Korea contributed a study it had undertaken that measured consumer perceptions of the impact on the value of brands that advertised on pirate sites. The study analyzed 127 advertisements from five “refreshments” of 20 known pirate websites identified by the Korea Copyright Protection Agency. The Korean study revealed…

“…the existence of inappropriate advertising products for minors, including advertising of adult products ,dating websites, etc. It also showed that some links in advertisements take users to content such as illegal gambling, which is inappropriate content even for adults.

 The research shows that illegal gambling makes up the greatest part (45.6 per cent) of the advertised business type and that advertisements customized for website visitors were detected on 6 out of 20 websites. The display of advertisements for well-known brands may help these websites gain credibility (for example, by advertising educational businesses or electronic goods).”

Other legitimate products or services advertised included fashion, beauty products and restaurants. The study then went on to examine consumers’ attitude toward the advertisement, their willingness to buy targeted products, their level of trust in advertised brands and their willingness to recommend the advertised product to others depending on whether the product was advertised on a reputable, as opposed to, a pirate website. Over 500 respondents participated.

In all categories (trust, willingness to buy, recommend, etc.) products advertised on illegitimate sites scored only 70% in terms of consumer confidence in comparison to products and services advertised on legitimate sites.

The finding is intuitive and not surprising, but it documents the dangers to premium brands of finding their products on pirate websites in association with dodgy advertising from gambling and dating sites.

In the same WIPO document, the EU reports on progress being made in curtailing advertising on copyright infringing sites by the establishment and signing (under the auspices of the European Commission) of a Memorandum of Understanding between 28 companies and associations (advertisers, advertising intermediaries, and rights-holder associations) to encourage two types of action;

  • “collective efforts aimed at limiting the placement of advertising on websites and mobile applications which have been found by judicial, administrative or other enforcement authorities to infringe copyright or to disseminate counterfeit goods on a commercial scale;
  • and individual efforts aimed at limiting the placement of advertising on websites and mobile applications in relation to which the advertisers have reasonably available evidence that those websites and applications are infringing copyright or disseminate counterfeit products on a commercial scale based on signatories’ own individual policies and assessment criteria.”

A “follow the money” approach to combatting piracy has shown to be an effective tool, and targeting the advertising funds that pirate sites depend on can starve them of income.

The full article by Hugh Stephens – WIPO Helps in the Fight Against Online Piracy – can be read here:

Hugh Stephens is the principal of TransPacific Connections, an executive fellow at the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary and Vice Chair of the Canadian Committee on Pacific Economic Cooperation (PECC)

Mr. Stephens has more than 35 years of High Level government and business experience in the Asia-Pacific region. He was Senior Vice President (Public Policy) for Asia-Pacific for Time Warner for almost a decade. Mr Stephens had previously spent 30 years in the Canadian Foreign Service with the Department of External Affairs, later the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT). He also served abroad as Canadian Representative in Taiwan, along with a number of overseas postings in the Asia Pacific Region, including service at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing.