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Content thieves place Internet users at risk

Content thieves are making millions from malicious advertising on sites sharing stolen movies and television shows while placing Internet users at increasing risk, according to new findings from Internet safety education body Digital Citizens Alliance and strategic advisory firm MediaLink.

The report found that the largest content theft sites generated more than $200 million dollars in advertising-driven revenues in 2014. A snapshot of 589 top content theft sites generated $209 million in 2014 from ads running alongside stolen movies and TV shows the sites offer, according to Good Money Still Going Bad, prepared by MediaLink.

Those ads include many easily recognisable consumer brands who would certainly not want to be associated with content theft or with the proliferation of unwanted downloads and malware that can be found on many of the sites. The report also illustrates the unfortunate resilience of this illicit industry, where new sites quickly replace those that authorities and content owners do manage to shut down.

In the original Good Money Gone Bad report on the profitability of the content theft industry, Digital Citizens and MediaLink reported that a similar snapshot, of 596 sites, generated an estimated $227 million in 2013. Some 40 per cent of those sites were shut down or shrunk between studies, yet ad revenues were comparable.

“What this report shows is that content theft sites can make something while creating nothing while posing real dangers to Internet users who are subjected to malware and other viruses,” said Tom Galvin, Executive Director of the Digital Citizens Alliance. “Despite the intensified efforts of law enforcement and private industry, the content thieves had another banner year, and that’s bad news for both content creators and consumers who got their computers infected.”

“The advertising industry is working hard on many fronts to block the ad revenue that is the lifeblood of the content theft business. It is apparent from this research that more needs to be done,” said Wenda Harris Millard, President and COO of MediaLink. “We applaud Digital Citizens’ ongoing efforts to shine a light on this and other issues related to Internet safety, and are glad to be able to support their work.”

Besides the $209 million in revenue in 2014, Digital Citizens noted other troubling trends:

  • Malware and Unwanted Downloads: One-third of the sites included links with the potential to infect users’ computers with viruses and other malware. In most cases the links are hidden behind ‘Download’ or ‘Play’ buttons, but in many cases, it is not even necessary to click on a link to spawn the unwanted download. These downloads earn site owners millions in annual revenue.
  • Video Streaming Spurs Growth: Consumer demand for streaming video to computers and mobile devices has fuelled growth in the content theft world just as in legitimate business. Streaming sites are the growth sector, with the number of streaming sites up 40 per cent in 2014, allowing content thieves to benefit from higher video ad prices.
  • More Premium Brand Ads Found: Despite industry and public efforts to crack down on content theft, researchers found more premium brand ads on content theft sites in 2014 than in 2013. This is a danger for the reputation and value of legitimate brands, and should spur even more action to throttle advertising to these sites.
  • Rampant Fraud; Ads Mislead, Misrepresent and Misdirect: MediaLink and ad effectiveness firm DoubleVerify found that 60 per cent of the ad impressions served by sites with available data were ‘laundered’ – served through phony ‘front’ sites to obscure the ads’ ultimate destination. For 15 per cent of the sites, ALL of the impressions were fraudulent in this regard.

“The operators of content theft sites are getting smarter and more devious in their methods,” said Galvin. “If you watch television shows and movies from content theft sites, you are exposing your devices to malware. It’s unfortunate that some of biggest, best-known corporations are allowing their good names to be used to give credibility to these sites pushing viruses and bots around the Internet. Companies need to take steps to protect their brand and the consumers that trust them.”

The Digital Citizens Alliance suggested that corporations have issues with ad fraud look to the Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG) for help. TAG offers a certification programme to companies and agencies that keep their ads off websites that promote or distribute counterfeit goods or pirated content.

The report called a programme “a smart effort designed to scale back the corrupt inventory we see in the marketplace and protect the brands that are damaged by being linked to content thieves”.

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