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UK police are waging war on piracy sites' funding — and it's working

Rob Price
pirate flag piracy inverted upside down red
pirate flag piracy inverted upside down red

(Joe Shlabotnik/Flickr (CC))
British police are cracking down on piracy sites' funding.

Most big piracy sites don't charge their users a fee, but are still able to profit off of copyright infringement. Why? Because the operators plaster their pages in advertising.

But British police now say they are making major headway in tackling this: On Wednesday, the Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit (PIPCU) announced that Operation Creative, launched in 2013, has led to a 73% decline in advertising "from the UK's top ad spending companies on copyright infringing websites."

As part of Operation Creative, PIPCU created a kind of blacklist, the Infringing Website List (IWL). Sites hosting illegal content that do not engage with the agency when approached will be placed on the list, which is then circulated with Operation Creative partners and those in the ad business so they know not to advertise on those sites.

Back in July last year, PIPCU partnered with content verification company Project Sunblock to replace brand ads on websites suspected of infringing copyright with banners from the police, warning users that the site is under investigation.

Household brands inadvertently advertising alongside illegal copyrighted content has long been a problem online. In 2013, I reported for The Kernel on numerous big brands advertising on popular piracy sites, including Nationwide, Wonga, the Western Union, GCHQ, the National Lottery, Betfair, and William Hill. There is no indication that any of the brands knew that their adverts were appearing on these sites — but this underscores the problem.

Companies often rely on automated, programmatic advertising processes to place their adverts around the web. But if not properly policed, it can result in their ads appearing next to objectionable or illegal content. A 2013 report by the Digital Citizens Alliance estimates that advertising brought in $227 million in revenue for piracy sites.

"The criminals behind these sites are making substantial sums of money from advertising," said PIPCU chief inspector Peter Ratcliffe, "and inadvertently brands and advertisers are funding this online crime."

In a statement, minister for intellectual property Baroness Lucy Neville-Rolfe said that "the Government takes copyright infringement extremely seriously — it hurts businesses, consumers and the wider economy. The results of Operation Creative show what can be achieved when enforcement agencies, industry and government work together. I am delighted PIPCU are clamping down on advertising of things like pop music and gambling on copyright infringing sites - protecting our industries and consumers from online crime."

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