City Police suspends 40 illegal sites following ad industry-backed crackdown against online piracy

City of London Police has suspended 40 websites following the first phase of a UK ad industry-backed pilot aimed at tackling pirate sites and the ad revenues they generate.

The aim of the three-month pilot, which was first revealed by The Drum last December, is to root out all websites deemed to be violating copyright on a major level and generating substantial revenues as a result. It is also aimed at safeguarding advertisers from inadvertently appearing on such sites.

The City Police’s new Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit (PIPCU) worked with ad trade bodies including Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) Incorporated Society of British Advertisers ISBA, and the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB), and rights holder bodies including Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT) and British Recorded Music Industry (BPI), to draw up a list of 61 pirate sites, both in the UK and abroad.

PIPCU then issued official warnings to the perpetrating sites to correct their behaviour and begin operating legitimately. Details of those who failed to respond were passed to the 60 brands, agencies and ad-tech companies participating in the pilot, for them to feed into their trading desks and start boycotting the illegal sites.

As a result almost half of total ads (46 per cent) served to the sites were found to be unknown and unidentified brands, all of which invited people to click through, often to fraudulent scams.

PIPCU has now revealed that ads which encouraged people to click through to sites with “explicit adult content” or expose them to malware spiked 39 per cent during the trial. This indicates that site owners may struggle to maintain their revenue streams when ads from established brands are removed, according to PIPCU.

The crackdown, called Operation Creative, has been renamed from its original name Operation Trade Bridge, after being transferred from the remit of the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau, to the newly created PIPCU.

PIPCU superintendent Bob Wishart said: “Operation Creative is being run by PIPCU and the digital and advertising sectors to really get to grips with a criminal industry that is making substantial profits by providing and actively promoting access to illegally obtained and copyrighted material.

“Together we have created a process that first and foremost encourages offenders to change their behaviour so they are operating within the law. However, if they refuse to comply we now have the means to persuade businesses to move their advertising to different platforms and, if offending continues, for registrars to suspend the websites.

“The success of Creative thus far is evidence of a growing international consensus that people should not be allowed to illegally profiteer from the honest endeavours of legitimate business enterprises.”

Nigel Gwilliam, IPA consultant head of digital said: “We and our member agencies take online ad misplacement very seriously. We are delighted to have been able to work with PIPCU and rights holders on this pioneering pilot to throttle advertising revenue to copyright infringing websites and look forward to further collaboration.”

Media agency groups already have their own ABC-audited content verification tools and other methods of policing ad placements, but this register is the first official, centralised list that all involved in the buying and selling of inventory can tap into.

IAB CEO Guy Phillipson has hailed the move as “unprecedented”.

"We welcome the Operation Creative pilot as a major step in understanding how the advertising industry can assist in tackling the issue of advertising appearing against sites under investigation by police for copyright infringement. This unprecedented collaboration with PIPCU across rights holders and the digital advertising industry will help us as we continue to work towards protecting brand reputations within digital environments,” he said.

David Ellison, ISBA’s marketing services manager, said: “The vast sums brands invest in their online advertising can easily be eclipsed by the damage that can be done to affect a brand’s reputation by one misplaced advert. Initiative Operation Creative helps to protect advertisers by ensuring that their ads don’t appear on illegal, IP infringing websites, thereby starving these sites of revenue advertisers unwittingly provide. The pilot scheme proves that this project can make a difference.”

A PIPCU spokeswoman told The Drum they will not yet reveal the names of any of the sites or advertisers that have been affected but will now look to push forward with the next phase of the crackdown. This will involve the launch of a platform in the New Year in which all advertisers and anyone involved in the digital ad ecosystem can access the register.

PIPCU also worked with the Publishers Association and the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry on the project.