Over the years, the fight against online piracy has led to countless lawsuits by media companies and to escalating levels of law enforcement, all with mixed results.
Lately, though, new attention has turned to an aspect of online commerce that critics say finances online piracy: advertising. Prodding from the White House and a recent academic report have put pressure on the online advertising industry to prevent ads — for jeans, say, or car insurance — from appearing on a page offering a free download of Season 2 of “Game of Thrones.” Yet these efforts have also been slow to produce results, in part because of the complexity of the online ad system.This month, the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Innovation Lab released a report that ranked 10 ad networks on the amount of business they do with sites suspected of engaging in piracy, with Google and Yahoo placing high on the list. Ad networks use advanced computer algorithms to place ads on Web sites.
They can be run by agencies, publishers or others. The implicit criticism of the report is that the operators of these networks know which sites traffic in copyright infringement and therefore could keep ads — and ad money — away from them if they wanted to. “Brands make sure that their ads never show up on porn sites, so we’re basically saying, why not do the same with piracy sites?” said Jonathan Taplin, the director of the Innovation Lab, which is part of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. But some of the ad networks cited by the report have disputed its methodology and meaning. And even its supporters complain that the online ad system — a chain of Web sites, ad servers, digital publishers and agency trading desks that buy and sell ads at a rapid pace — operates in a way that makes it difficult to know where to point the finger. The researchers studied the fragments of computer code that were appended to the ads they found on sites suspected of piracy over a year. The sites were drawn from a report by Google listing sites that had received the most complaints from copyright holders.
Representatives of Google and OpenX, two of the largest companies on USC’s list, did not deny the prevalence of their codes. But they disputed its meaning, saying that their technology is widely used by third parties — like ad agency