EXCLUSIVE

UK government inadvertently funding piracy sites

By Rob Price

The UK’s spy agency GCHQ has taken a great deal of flak in recent months, for everything from spying on foreign politicians at the 2009 G9 summit to infiltrating World of Warcraft to spy on orcs. But today the Kernel can reveal a hitherto unreported transgression of the British intelligence agency: helping to fund online piracy.

Last week we reported on how vast swathes of the UK gambling industry are helping to support copyright infringement by allowing their advertising messages to appear on illegal websites. Further investigation has revealed that the issue is not restricted to the gambling sector, but that it is endemic across the British business and public sector landscapes, even including high-profile government departments and segments of the Armed Forces.

We also found advertisements for multiple high-profile financial services and institutions including Nationwide, one of the largest building societies in the world, and the controversial payday lender Wonga. These companies are also effectively helping to fund intellectual property theft.

WHAT’S GOING DOWN

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Our investigation found banner adverts for GCHQ Careers alongside links facilitating the illegal download of copyrighted content through peer-to-peer torrent networks. This means taxpayer pounds allocated to help “keep society safe and successful in the cyber age” are in fact doing precisely the opposite: subsidising online piracy.

Meanwhile, UK building society Nationwide’s attractive two year 2.94 per cent fixed-rate mortgage is being advertised alongside links to download audiobook versions of John Grisham’s Sycamore Row and the critically acclaimed The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

Other financial services we found advertising alongside illicit material include the money transfer service Western Union, credit expert Experian and pay-day loan companies MoneyShop.tv and Wonga.

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These findings will be especially embarrassing for Wonga as some of their offending adverts were for the new Wonga Stories film, their biggest PR push in years and part of a fightback against a string of negative headlines and calls for greater regulation of the short-term loan industry.

Other organisations whose adverts are displayed alongside pirated content include the National Lottery, whose adverts appear above links to a reading of A Christmas Carol by Patrick Stewart, the NHS alongside DVD rips of hit film Gravity and the Royal Navy recruiting next to a selection of illegally-shared copies of James Bond movies, as well as the National Careers Service, The Royal Mint, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and the “GREAT Britain” UK government publicity campaign.

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Although, as previously reported, adverts for gambling products and companies remain by far the most prevalent for purportedly reputable brands on these sites, these findings confirm that the practice is by no means restricted to the one industry.

HOW IT ALL WORKS

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As with the gambling companies previously investigated, there is no indication that any of the indicted organisations have ever had any contact with The Pirate Bay or the network of mirrors and proxies that their adverts are appearing on, 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.

The City of London Police claims to have made real progress in tackling online piracy through Operation Creative, which targeted advertising revenue streams and preventing reputable companies inadvertently funding copyright theft and tarnishing their brands in the process.

But these findings – that the British government, along with one of the largest financial institutions in the country are financially supporting the violation of international intellectual property laws – suggests that whatever has been achieved by so far is desperately inadequate.

Ironically, many of the brands we identified in the course of our investigation made use of software from Evidon in their offending ads – designed, a company representative told The Kernel – “to help publishers and advertisers prevent [advert misplacement] from happening”.

One reader alleged that many of these adverts are sourced by affiliate marketers who stump up the up-front costs themselves, something we were unable to confirm before going to press. Ultimately it makes no difference: government money is being channeled towards the upkeep of illegal sites that exist solely to distribute pirated material, and which do so on a massive scale.

GOING ROGUE

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Some of the websites on which these ads appeared are blocked in the UK. Our investigation focused on The Pirate Bay and its network of mirrors and proxies designed to get around the blocks that exist on the site in certain countries. The Pirate Bay has previously issued a statement saying:

‘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.’

From what we’ve discovered, it seems oversight is far more lax than even the Pirate Bay itself believes: governmental bodies and major financial institutions are apparently able to fund these sites without consequence. These findings are sure to alarm taxpayers, as well as the the more than 5.2 million people who currently have accounts with Nationwide.

Repeat offender

Nationwide has faced criticism over its online ad placement before: in May 2013, it, along with 13 other major brands, withdrew their adverts from Facebook after drawing fire when they appeared alongside pages appearing to glorify violence against women.

When contacted, a spokesperson told us “It is not our policy to advertise on this sort of website and we immediately asked for this advert to be removed. We have also had this website added to our blacklist of inappropriate websites.  We do take a number of steps to ensure our advertising does not appear on inappropriate websites including the use of ‘ad verification software'”.

Our initial findings about gambling companies suggested a single industry gone rogue. But now the evidence points towards a complete lack of understanding or oversight of the online advertising industry as a whole, with ad networks running riot, companies failing to keep track of where their advertising materials are appearing, and ad monitoring software, when used, appearing unfit for purpose.

What the ad networks say

We contacted one ad network, Exoclick, who told us:

We check every advertiser and publisher on our network to make sure that all the content they have is within our guidelines [which include bans on “content that infringes on Intellectual Property”]

Checks are done on all new publishers and advertisers as well as routine checks on existing partners, so there is never any worry about the content that adverts will be displayed near.

Despite this claim, we found their adverts repeatedly and brazenly displayed upon The Pirate Bay, the single largest repository of links to copyrighted material in the world.

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It is fast becoming clear: something must be done.