In June, UK authors’ society PRS for Music and search giant Google published The Six Business Models for Copyright Infringement, a report detailing how websites thought to be facilitating copyright infringement operated. Part of the study looked at how they are funded and found that advertising played a key role in at least three of the business models identified.
As part of the research, the report looked at advertising found on each site by checking for the presence of the AdChoices logo, which appears on sites that use Google’s AdSense program to show advertisements. AdChoices is a program administered by the UK trade association for online advertisers, the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB), and advertising agencies need to sign up to be included. The report found that 86% of ads on the websites tracked did not display the AdChoices logo, meaning the advertisers were not associated with the online-advertising self-regulation program. Advertising falling into this 86% includes offers of free music, competitions, weight-loss services, gambling and overseas dating services. However, the remaining 14% of ads on the pirate music sites that are placed by media agencies signed up to the AdChoices program are often for well-known companies and services. Moreover, many of these companies are unaware of the type of websites their services are being advertised on.
Internet advertising takes many forms, ranging from simple banner ads placed on websites to more-complex targeted advertising systems that track Internet users’ preferences and tailor online advertising on websites specifically to the unique visitor. Most companies operate a system whereby when an Internet user visits a company’s website a cookie is placed in the user’s browser. For websites that operate the AdChoices program, advertising displayed closely relates to the interest and inferred demographic categories associated with the stored cookie.
Toward the end of last year, Music & Copyright monitored advertising in the UK on a number of illegal-music sites. All the sites operate a simple advertising system including banners that rotate among company ads when the page is refreshed. Music & Copyright contacted a random sample of the companies whose advertising was displayed. All the companies that replied said the placement of the advertising was either a mistake or an oversight and that they would endeavor to have the advertising removed as quickly as possible. Most of the companies also offered an explanation of how their advertising process worked and why their advertising found its way to the sites.
In an effort to see whether the companies contacted last time around had removed their advertising from the pirate music websites, Music & Copyright revisited the sites. A check of other pirate sites listed high up in Google search rankings after a search for “free MP3 downloads” was also made, to see whether the media agencies representing the companies in question had merely removed their advertising from just the sites identified. It is worth noting that all of sites checked previously and last week were listed in the top 10 of the Google search results.
Of the companies contacted last year, ads for money-lending services Borro and Wonga and entertainment retailer Play.com were shown on the same pirate sites. No ads for ISP British Telecom or energy firm British Gas were found on the original offending sites, but ads for these companies were displayed on other pirate music sites. No advertising for British Airways, Coop, Orange or Scottish Power, all of which were found to be on pirate sites last time, could be found this time around.
When Music & Copyright notified the repeat offenders, the companies responded with a mixture of surprise and irritation. For example, a representative from Wonga said: “We dealt with it when it was first flagged to us, and adverts should not be appearing on the site, and we’re surprised to see it there. We have instructed all our partners not to run adverts. We’ll reiterate this to them all, but please let me know if you see any more.”
Borro had offered no explanation by press time for why its advertising remained on the pirate site MP3Skull.com. At the end of last year, the money lender’s PR agency said the site was “probably classified as a music site, which won’t fall under banned content.” But it added: “We have now flagged it and requested that MP3skull.com be added to that blacklist.”
Play.com told Music & Copyright that it took the matter of brand safety “very seriously.” During the last survey the retailer said it would be investigating with its media agency to find out how its advertising found its way to MP3Skull.com. After Play.com was made aware that its advertising was still being shown on the same pirate music site, it said its advertising was “not deliberately targeted towards websites containing illegal or pirate material.” The company added that “the way that online advertising is bought and sold means that occasionally, a disreputable site can sell advertising whilst masking the nature of the site.”
How the ads end up on pirate sites
The advertising for the companies on the surveyed sites finds its way there through a process involving display advertising services and ad exchanges. Online advertising works in two ways. The first is through direct agency relationships with premium publishers. The second is through purchases made through ad exchanges using a method called “real-time bidding.” A media agency engages with ad exchanges in an automated process that matches advertisers’ criteria (demographic, reach, interest, etc.) to inventory offered by online publishers. This enables advertisers to gain placements and reach an audience across a much broader selection of niche websites.
When a page is loaded, the ad exchange serving that page auctions the page. The agency that wins the auction then serves an ad from one of its advertisers’ based on their supplied parameters, such as a user’s onsite behavior and level of engagement with advertising. This process is completed in milliseconds.
A big net with a small hole
The latest survey of illegal music sites and correspondence with the companies that were found to have advertising displayed led to similar conclusions as last time around. There was again little doubt that the companies contacted and re-contacted were genuinely unaware that their services were being advertised on the pirate music sites. A common theme in their replies was that they did not knowingly place ads on the sites and were quick to point out the cracks in the use of blind networks. Even though these networks conform to the highest industry standards and have promised to uphold brand integrity, they are not 100% secure, and occasionally errors will occur.
But rights holders will have great difficulty in accepting the claims that almost all of the companies contacted were concerned with the presence of their ads on the websites yet seemingly rely on outside notification before any attempt is made to have the advertising removed. Moreover, the fact that the offending sites checked by “Music & Copyright” ranked so high in Google’s search list and the ease with which the companies’ advertising was found will simply adds to rights holders’ discomfort.
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