Readers of this blog will know that we’ve been gaining attention and awareness on brand sponsored piracy. We’ve noted how 50 Major Brands are Supporting Music Piracy. When that information is paired with The LA Times and The New York Times reports from the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab’s Transparency Report on Advertising Networks financing piracy we see a very clear picture emerging.
It is very clear that online piracy is a mass scale, for profit, enterprise level commercial business. There is a lot of money changing hands. Google is said to make approximately $30 Billion a year, with 97% of the money coming from advertising revenue. All of Google’s other products combined only account for less than 3% of it’s annual earnings.
So we can see that there are a lot of people making a lot money from the unauthorized, illegal infringement of artists and creators work. This is no longer about individual “sharing.” This is about businesses exploiting artists for profit, and not paying the artists a penny. We do not know of one cent being paid to artists from sites like The Pirate Bay, 4Shared and Filestube just to name a few of the major offenders.
So where does Google fit into this? Why do so many artists rights advocates focus so intently on Google? Simply because public documents have exposed Google as having knowledge of wrong doing and doing nothing about it – until they got busted, red handed, twice.
In 2011 Google paid $500,000,000 (that’s half a billion dollars) in a non-prosecution settlement agreement to avoid criminal prosecution. Yes, Google paid half a billion dollars to avoid criminal prosecution and the documents in the case revealed that knowledge of wrongdoing went all the way to the top, to none other than Larry Page himself. The story caught the attention of many mainstream media outlets including CNN.
The Wall Street Journal Reported:
“Larry Page knew what was going on,” Peter Neronha, the Rhode Island U.S. Attorney who led the probe, said in an interview. “We know it from the investigation. We simply know it from the documents we reviewed, witnesses that we interviewed, that Larry Page knew what was going on” . . .
Harvard Law Associate Professor Ben Edelman continues;
These admissions and the associated documents confirm what I had long suspected: Not only does Google often ignore its stated “policies”, but in fact Google staff affirmatively assist supposed “rule-breakers” when Google finds it profitable to do so…
In June I observed that Google’s bad ads span myriad categories beyond pharmaceuticals — charging for services that are actually free, promising free service when there’s actually a charge, promoting copyright infringement, promoting spyware/adware, bogus mortgage modification offers, work-at-home scams, investment rip-offs, identify theft, and more.
Note that Edelman reports the problem is much larger than just the illegal advertising of drugs. It appears to even extend into such black markets as human trafficking. This issue was even met with a Change.Org petition as well as being reported on here and here.
So if Google has been caught lying about their knowledge of wrong doing in the past, and violating their actual practices versus policies, than what else do they know and what else are they doing? How many other of their own policies do they not follow, or worse, aid others in circumventing them? All reasonable questions to ask given the publicly available information.
The profiting from illegal behavior was also reported by Ars Technica ,
When the sting began in 2009, Google had in place policies designed to block illicit pharmaceutical advertising. Whitaker’s orders were initially rejected under those policies. But Whitaker says Google sales reps helped him tweak his sites to skirt the rules.
“It was very obvious to Google that my website was not a licensed pharmacy,” Whitaker told the Journal. “Understanding this, Google provided me with a very generous credit line and allowed me to set my target advertising directly to American consumers.”
All of this brings us back to where we are now regarding Google’s non-denial regarding financing commercial scale infringement sites. There is a history of this behavior with Google that dates back further. In May of 2011 The Copyright Alliance noted the following regarding the 2007 case of EasyDownloadCenter.com and TheDownloadPlace.com.
Indeed there is even publicly documented history of Google knowingly and purposefully working with pirate websites to increase traffic to such websites and profits to Google from the Sponsored Links/Adwords programs. In conjunction with the settlement of a copyright infringement lawsuit brought by the major Hollywood studios against Luke Sample, Brandon Drury and their companies for operation of subscription based websites devoted to helping consumers find and download pirated copyrighted works, Sample’s Affidavit was filed by one of the defendants testifying to the fact that Google worked directly with the illegal website to drive traffic to it and increase Google’s revenues from its participation in the sponsored links program.
This is the part below really gives us pause, reported not just by The Copyright Alliance, but also many tech publications and outlets such as DailyTech.
In fact, Google’s ad teams even made suggestions designed to optimize conversion rates by using keywords targeted to pirated content – such as suggesting downloading films still in theatrical release, that obviously were not available yet in any authorized format for home viewing.
According to PCWorld this added up to some decent money…
EasyDownloadCenter.com and TheDownloadPlace.com generated US$1.1 million in revenue between 2003 and 2005, and Google received $809,000 for advertising, the Journal reported.
So the question today is what does Google actually know about how it’s advertising practices are financing the destruction of the creative community by supporting these unauthorized, illegally operating, commercial infringers? How much has really changed?
Keep in mind that although Google pays it’s “partners” a revenue share on YouTube for claimed content, the company makes no such offer to artists and creators on the advertising that it still appears to be serving to pirate sites. This is further demonstrated by the lack of ability for the company to make a definitive statement that Google does not serve any ads, to any pirate sites (or at least the 43,000 listed in the companies own transparency report).
Also central to this conversation is that the way consumers access the unauthorized, illegal and infringing sites which usually starts with a Google search itself. In fact according to Google’s own public transparency report there are over 13 million infringing links being removed from Google’s search engine monthly by rights holders. Those 13 million infringing links represent over 43,000 infringing sites.
Wouldn’t the rational and logical solution be to create a joint review board the represents the interests of all stakeholders that can negotiate penalties or the removal of bad actors?