Police warnings to appear on websites suspected of copyright abuse

Attempt to tackle sites by hitting advertising revenue

UK visitors to websites suspected of pirating content will from this week be served banners warning them of the site's suspect status, the Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit (PIPCU) has announced.

The latest initiative, part of Operation Creative, is a sort of 'twofer' attempt to disrupt the expanding economy of sites that earn money from legitimate syndicated web advertising while drawing eyeballs using pirated content.

Using a system provided by verification provider Project Sunblock, severe-looking banners will start appearing on sites that have been reported to PIPCU by rights holders and appear on its Infringing Websites List (IWL). According to police, officers manually evaluated reported sites to confirm whether they were infringing copyright, informing the website owner of this process.

The system only notices UK-oriented ads and so should not, in theory, be seen by anyone beyond the UK itself.

"This new initiative is another step forward for the unit in tackling IP crime and disrupting criminal profits. Copyright infringing websites are making huge sums of money though advert placement, therefore disrupting advertising on these sites is crucial and this is why it is an integral part of Operation Creative," said PIPCU head, DCI Andy Fyfe.

"This work also helps us to protect consumers. When adverts from well-known brands appear on illegal websites, they lend them a look of legitimacy and inadvertently fool consumers into thinking the site is authentic."

Without realising it, many advertisers were currently paying criminals for ads placed on sites hosting illegal or dubious content, he said.

Operation Creative started a year ago as three-way alliance between police, an advertising industry fed up with criminals gaming the Internet's highly-distributed ad system, and organisations such as the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT) and the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), annoyed at the abuse of copyright content.

A three-month pilot scheme that ran 61 suspect sites through the mill by issuing owners with direct police warnings, reported a modest drop in the abuse of legitimate brands. But the same pilot also noted that once deprived of legitimate advertising, criminals turned to malware or porn, which increased by 39 percent.

That was taken as a success but showed that there could be unintended consequences. The new filtering system run by Project Sunblock using IBM's global filter database should be an advance on that because it places warnings on the site in view of the visitor.

Ask for an opinion on the warning banner approach and you'll get almost as many opinions are there are experts to ask.

"This new initiative cleverly combines two fronts in the campaign against piracy; counter-acting user ignorance that sites they are using infringed copyright and starving pirate sites of advertising revenue that they use to support their services and generate at times substantial profits," said Adam Rendle of law firm, Taylor Wessing.

"It will be interesting to see whether the operators of any pirate sites would surface to try and challenge the approach PIPCU have taken," he said.

Trend Micro's inhouse expert Rik Ferguson was less impressed.

"It is not a lack of knowledge that leads people to download pirated content, it's the failure of the other industries to move with the times," he said. Users would continue to download content illegally because too many providers remained tied to an out-of-date business model.

If he's correct, the initiative will end up chasing its tail as a way of blocking piracy. Too few sites will have the warnings and even those that do will not stop downloads by determined users. Advertising will decline somewhat but malware and other nasties will increase.

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