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City of London Police are claiming credit for the suspension of 40 ad-funded websites that provided unauthorised access to copyright-protected content – but may have caused a rise in the number of web ads carrying malware or promoting pornography.

Operation Creative has resulted in the suspension of 40 national and international websites by domain name registrars during a three month pilot. The campaign was led by the new Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit (PIPCU) in collaboration with the creative industry, as represented by FACT (Federation Against Copyright Theft), the BPI (British Phonographic Industry), IFPI (International Federation of the Phonographic Industry) and The Publishers Association.

Also in at the death was the advertising industry, represented by the Internet Advertising Bureau UK, the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers and the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising.

During the pilot, adverts from well-known brands on 61 targeted websites decreased by 12 per cent. But adverts that led users to sites with explicit adult content or exposed them to malware increased by 39 per cent during the same period.

Police put a positive spin on this development, arguing that switching to shadier sources of advertising is unsustainable and that "site owners may struggle to maintain their revenue streams when adverts from established brands are removed".

Almost half (46 per cent) of total ads served to the sites were for unknown or unidentified brands which invited users to click through, often to fraudulent scams.

The campaign took a carrot and stick approach to clamping down on sites that brought in ad revenue by streaming content they didn't own, as a statement by the City of London Police explains:

Once illegal activity was confirmed by analysts from the City of London Police, a formal ‘prevention and deterrent’ process began to encourage infringing websites to engage with the police, to correct their behaviour and to begin to operate legitimately.

Details of those failing to respond to this approach were then passed to a group of 60 brands, agencies and advertising technology businesses with a request to stop advertising on these websites.

In the case of persistent infringers, PIPCU sent out formal letters to domain name registrars explaining that they were hosting websites facilitating criminal copyright infringement under UK law as well as potentially breaching their terms and conditions. Registrars were asked to suspend these websites.

Superintendent Bob Wishart, from PIPCU, said: “Operation Creative is being run by PIPCU and the digital and advertising sectors to really get to grips with a criminal industry that is making substantial profits by providing and actively promoting access to illegally obtained and copyrighted material."

“Together we have created a process that first and foremost encourages offenders to change their behaviour so they are operating within the law. However, if they refuse to comply we now have the means to persuade businesses to move their advertising to different platforms and, if offending continues, for registrars to suspend the websites.

“The success of Creative thus far is evidence of a growing international consensus that people should not be allowed to illegally profiteer from the honest endeavours of legitimate business enterprises,” he added.

Geoff Taylor, chief executive of the BPI, said: “The early results from Operation Creative show that through working with the police and the online advertising industry, we can begin to disrupt the funding that sustains illegal websites. These sites expose consumers to scams and malware, deny creators their living, and harm brands by associating them with illegal and unsafe content."

"We hope to broaden the initiative to include more brands, advertising networks and other online intermediaries, to support innovation and growth in the legal digital music sector,” he added.

David Ellison, ISBA’s Marketing Services Manager, said: “The vast sums brands invest in their online advertising can easily be eclipsed by the damage that can be done to a brand’s reputation by one misplaced advert."

"Initiative Operation Creative helps to protect advertisers by ensuring that their ads don’t appear on illegal, IP infringing websites, thereby starving these sites of revenue advertisers unwittingly provide. The pilot scheme proves that this project can make a difference,” he added.

PIPCU is based at the City of London Police. It was established to protect UK industries that produce both physical goods and online and digital content from counterfeiting and piracy. The operationally independent unit is initially being funded by the Intellectual Property Office, which is part of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. ®

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