Withholding Ads from Illegal Download Sites

Over the past few months, the conversation about online infringement has shifted from topics like graduated response and DMCA-related litigation to cutting off ad revenue for sites that provide illegal downloads.  This issue gained some importance during the run-up to SOPA and PIPA in 2011.  David Lowery of The Trichordist gave it new visibility last year by initiating a stream of screenshots showing major consumer brands that advertise on sites like FilesTube, IsoHunt, and MP3Skull.

Last week, the issue took on a new level of importance when a report from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Innovation Lab confirmed that major online ad networks, including those of Google and Yahoo, routinely place ads on pirate sites.  The Innovation Lab has come up with an automated way of tracking the ad networks that place ads sites that (according to the Google Transparency Report) attract the most DMCA takedown notices.  The study ranks the top ten ad networks that serve ads on pirate sites and will be updated monthly.

The idea is to shame consumer brands by showing them that their ads are appearing on pirate sites amid ads for pornography, mail-order brides, etc.  The Annenberg study has already led to at least one major consumer brand insisting that its ads be pulled from pirate sites.

The focus on online ad networks is — as Lowery admitted at our Copyright and Technology NYC 2012 conference last month — not an ideal solution to the problem of online infringement but rather a “low hanging fruit” approach that appeals to real business imperatives without requiring lawyers or lobbyists.  It’s an acknowledgement that legislation to address online infringement is not going to be achievable, at least in the near future, in the aftermath of the defeats of SOPA and PIPA in early 2012.

Yet the tactic’s effectiveness is limited by the quality of information about ad buys that flows through ad networks.  For example, it’s sometimes not possible for an advertiser to know where its ads are being placed because, among other reasons, ad networks resell inventory to each other.

Let’s assume that most consumer brands would rather not have their ads placed on pirate sites.  Then two things are required to solve this problem.  One is standards for information about ad buys — advertiser identity, inventory, ad network, type of placement, and so on — and protocols for communicating that information up the chain of intermediaries from the website on which the ad was placed all the way up to the advertiser.  The other is agreement throughout the online ad industry to use such standards in communication and reporting.

If you follow efforts to develop standard content identifiers and online rights registries, you should see the analogy here.

The good news is that the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) has been working on standards that look like they could apply here with some tweaks.   The IAB launched the eBusiness Interactive Standards initiative in 2008 with the goal of increasing efficiency and reducing errors in online ad workflows.  The eBusiness Interactive Standards spec defines XML structures for communicating information among advertisers, agencies, and publishers (websites) from RFPs (requests for proposal) through to IOs (insertion orders).

Now the bad news.  The IAB standards would need some modification to cover the requirements here: they don’t appear to work through multiple levels of ad networks, they don’t include globally unique identifiers for ad placements (though this would be simple to add), and they aren’t designed to cover performance reporting.  Furthermore, progress in getting the standard to market appears to be slow: it entered a beta phase with limited customers in 2011, and no progress has been apparent since then.

Yet even if the right standards were adopted, the advertising industry would still need to commit to the kinds of transparency that would be necessary to ensure, if an advertiser wishes, that its ads don’t appear on pirate sites.  For one thing, advertisers often buy “blind” a/k/a run-of-network inventory in order to get discount pricing, and there is no reliable way to ensure that such buys don’t inadvertently end up on pirate sites.  A related problem is where to draw the line between obvious pirate sites like the ones mentioned above and those that happen to occasionally host unauthorized material.

Regulatory initiatives seem unlikely here.  Indeed, the Obama Administration and Congress in 2011 asked the ad industry to adopt a “pledge” against advertising on pirate sites; the industry’s two major U.S. trade associations responded last May with a statement full of equivocation and wiggle-room.

Ultimately, the pressure would have to come from advertisers themselves.  They could demand, for example, that even blind buys not appear on the 200-250 sites that show more than 10,000 takedown notices a month in the Google Transparency Report (mainstream sites like Facebook, Tumblr, DailyMotion, Scribd, and SoundCloud fall well below this threshold).  A good set of technical standards for tracking and reporting would help convince them that they can demand to withhold their ads from these sites with a reasonable chance of success.

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