The City of London Police has just announced the success of a three-month pilot, Operation Creative, a crackdown on copyright theft and the organisations funding it through online advertisements. However, a month-long investigation by The Kernel has found that some of the largest gambling companies in the world are continuing to fund copyright infringement by persistently advertising on sites dedicated to distributing copyrighted material.
Household names like William Hill, Ladbrokes and the Gala Coral Group are amongst those whose adverts appear on The Pirate Bay, the largest torrent search engine in the world which has been banned by court order in the UK since 2012 for “infringing copyright on a massive scale”. The site is currently engaged in a game of cat-and-mouse with the authorities, having just moved to an .ac domain name based in the Ascension Islands after its previous address was shut down.
The companies advertised are often registered in Gibraltar, but these remain British household names: Gala Coral Group’s Gala Bingo is the UK’s largest bingo operator, Ladbrokes is the largest retail bookmaker in the world and William Hill is listed on the FTSE 100 and has more than 2000 betting shops in the country.
Adverts from all three companies regularly appear alongside illegally shared copyrighted material.
A William Hill pop-up next to illegally shared video games.
The practice is not restricted to these three firms. In the course of our investigation, we found adverts from Betfair, 32Red, 888, Betfred, Club 777 and Casino.com (both owned by the Mansion Group), Star Games and Bet365 appearing alongside links to stolen intellectual property on The Pirate Bay and its network of mirrors and proxies. These adverts almost always take the form of full-page pop-ups – typically the most expensive for the advertiser, and hence the most lucrative for the site.
We visited the sites dozens of times, from different locations, different computers and using different web browsers. These adverts appeared on average more than 75 per cent of the time. Though The Pirate Bay declined to comment, taken together, these two facts suggest a significant proportion of the revenues of the site and its proxies is coming directly from gambling companies.
Typically, adverts alongside pirated material tend to be for organisations that operate outside of remit of rights-holding bodies like the BPI, MPAA and RIAA, or organisations small enough to pass unnoticed and avoid their ire.
Businesses that do advertise on such sites run the risk of being sued by rights-holders for helping facilitate copyright infringement, something previously addressed by The Pirate Bay in a statement on Facebook:
‘If we have “normal” ads, like ads from Starbucks, Nike or whatever, those companies would be bombarded by legal threats from MAFIAA [sic] and their friends.
This have [sic] happened before and the ads disappear as fast as they went up.’
Betfair in particular, is the world’s largest online betting exchange – a far cry from the adverts for Oriental brides, desperate pleas for upvotes on videos and fake download buttons that also run on the sites.
How it works
There is no suggestion that any of the gambling firms have ever had direct commercial contact with The Pirate Bay, nor that they are breaking any UK laws. Adverts are not distributed directly, but rather from a number of external advertising networks that companies sign up to. But customers, consumer groups and rights holders will be shocked to learn just how widespread this practice is.
Earlier this year, the major ad networks run by Google, Yahoo, AOL and Microsoft all began a crackdown on publishers distributing pirated content, meaning sites like The Pirate Bay have been forced to turn to other networks. A persistent offender is PropellerAds, which is based in the British Virgin Isles and has previously been identified (PDF) by the Annenberg Innovation Lab at University of Southern California as the most prolific advertiser on illegal file-sharing sites.
Pictured: A William Hill banner ad alongside links to copyrighted material.
PropellerAds boasts William Hill and Betfred amongst its clients, raising serious questions about what, if any, due diligence was performed by the organisations before distributing their online advertisements.
We reached out for comment to the gambling companies regarding how they choose ad networks and what procedures they have in place to avoid advertising alongside objectionable content. Not a single company got back to us, with the exception of Bet365, who simply told us they were “unable to assist”, by the time we went to press.
As previously mentioned, The Pirate Bay has also indicated that any organisation wilfully advertising on the site risks being “bombarded with legal threats” for helping to facilitate copyright infringement.
Additionally, Geoff Taylor from BPI has stated that by advertising on sites that “deny creators their living”, it risks harming the brands involved “by associating them with illegal and unsafe content”.
Almost all the gambling companies identified have their online arms registered in Gibraltar for a combination of looser regulation and tax purposes: Gibraltar currently levies a 1 per cent tax on fixed-odds gambling, capped at £425,000 per annum, in stark contrast to the UK’s 15 per cent uncapped rate.
Gibraltar’s Advertising Guidelines for Remote Gambling stipulate that “such internet websites as are used to advertise, promote and/or operate its gambling activities shall not include links to other sites with violent or immoral content”.
Putting the Boot In
These revelations will be especially embarrassing for the gambling companies coming in the wake of other recent allegations of misconduct. A study has claimed that children are wrongly being subjected to more than 200 adverts a year for gambling products, and the MP Tom Watson has called for new legislation after a Guardian investigation alleged that fixed-odds betting terminals in bookies are being used to facilitate money-laundering and drug-dealing.
City of London Police claim to have made good progress in the last three months with Operation Creative, but from what we have found, it’s clear there’s still a long way to go. That almost an entire industry is able to subsidise the illegal distribution of copyrighted material is evidence of just how lax oversight currently is. Professor Taplin from USC calls not for legislation but “self-regulation”. Whatever the answer, we’re definitely not there yet.