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Legitimate Advertising Continues At Pirate Web Sites

Harold Furchtgott-Roth

The Digital Citizens Alliance recently released a report: “Good Money Still Going Bad” which describes the continuing use of legitimate advertising at pirate websites in 2014. This follows a similar report “Good Money Gone Bad” released last year by Digital Citizens Alliance about pirate web sites in 2013. The combination of the two reports is a sobering reminder of how ubiquitous legitimate advertising is at pirate websites, and how difficult it is to combat pirate web sites.

The news is not entirely bad. Of the 596 pirate sites reviewed in 2013, Digital Citizens Alliance found that 44% percent had shut down or been substantially diminished by 2014. Efforts to thwart pirate web sites appear to have some success. The bad news is that new pirate sites emerged in 2014 to replace the failed pirate web sites. Just as content is easy to steal, pirate web sites are easy to create, and those new web sites are still able to attract legitimate advertisers.

Total legitimate advertising revenue at the pirate web sites surveyed in the 2014 study was $209 million. Although $209 million in legitimate advertising may seem small in a $50 billion online advertising market in the United States alone, the Digital Citizens Alliance studies are based on samples of pirate sites.

Moreover, the Digital Citizens Alliance studies examine only those sites dedicated primarily to pirated materials, not the many sites that have both legitimate and pirated materials. Actual revenue supporting websites with even some pirated materials is much larger.

Finding legitimate advertisers at pirate web sites is troubling in many ways. The advertisers provide revenues to illegal activities. Also, to many ordinary consumers, legitimate advertisers give an air of respectability and legitimacy to a website. A consumer might reason that if a site is good enough for a well-known brand, it is good enough for me. All of this creates a vicious cycle in which legitimate advertising finds its way on to pirate web sites because consumers are there; the legitimate advertising attracts more consumers who in turn attract more legitimate advertisers.

According to the Digital Citizens Alliance, pirate web sites often combine advertising with malware that infects users’ computers. The malware may be in the form of unwanted programs and malicious software. Moreover, user impressions may be inflated by malicious software at pirate sites further robbing legitimate advertisers.

Legitimate companies do not seek, and are often unaware of, advertising on pirate sites. Advertising is handled by third-party advertising brokers, and placement of advertisements is often driven by traffic at web sites. The solution for legitimate advertisers to avoid pirate sites was proposed earlier this year by Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG) and reported in one of my columns. TAG is jointly created the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A’s), the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), and GroupM Interaction. It will provide certification for web sites that do not traffic pirated materials so that more advertising can be routed to those legitimate sites. Legitimate advertisers can insist that their advertising only go to certified sites.

The recent Digital Citizens Alliance Study underscores the need for better tools for advertisers to fight back against pirate web sites. TAG provides such a tool.

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