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‘Blaming programmatic for content piracy is like blaming road deaths on progress’

Google's Michelle Chang talks to delegates at CASBAA's conference on brand safety

Google’s Michelle Chang addresses the ‘lion’s den’ at CASBAA’s conference on online safety in Hong Kong today

Who is to blame for big-brand advertising found on piracy websites and what can be done to stop it? That debate was at the centre of an energetic conference hosted by pay-TV industry body CASBAA today at which participants bemoaned the complexity of a problem they feel can never be fully solved.

John Medeiros, CASBAA’s chief policy offer, said that the online advertising industry must “stand up and recognise that it does have responsibilities” and face up to its role in supporting a lucrative underworld of pirated content that is costing the content makers he represents millions.

“When designing a programmatic system, you can’t just set it and forget it,” he said after being asked who to blame first for the problem of ads placed on rogue piracy websites by computers.

“[The system] requires oversight and maintenance. It has to remain clean in the interests of those paying for the advertising,” he said at CASBAA’s ‘Making Online Advertising Click’ event on online safety in Hong Kong.

In a video address to delegates, John Montgomery, chairman of media buyer GroupM Connect North America, said that piracy “is not programmatic’s fault” and to blame content and data theft on programmatic trading is “like blaming road deaths on progress.”

The automated buying of media online “can put more relevant advertising in front of people – and that’s good for everyone,” he said. “But it also allows opportunities for black hats – the bad guys – to use technology to steal content and data.”

“We just have to build safer cars,” he said. “We can’t blame progress, we just have got to fix it.”

The responsibility for ads on rogue sites should really lie with the advertiser, suggested Joe Nguyen, senior vice president, APAC, for digital measurement firm Comscore.

“Brands haven’t pushed agencies to be really transparent,” he said. “The stimulus for improvement needs to come from brands. It’s a case of ‘follow the money.'”

“They’re solutions out there [to avoid piracy websites], but not enough brands are using them and rely on blacklists,” he said, adding that the problem with list of undesirable websites is that the people behind them simply move on and start up elsewhere on the web.

“The issue of piracy websites can be dealt with. It comes down to effectiveness,” he said, suggesting that clients need to question their agencies on what tools they are using to buy and measure online advertising.

Ad viewability and “non-human traffic” from bots are areas where advertisers should be raising questions with their agencies, but many marketers in Asia “don’t quite get it,” Nguyen said.

The role of search engines was also stressed, with the suggestion that Google, which was accused of piracy and being a “kleptocracy” by the boss of media giant News Corp a few months ago, could be doing a lot more to address the issue.

Kieron Sharp, director general of FACT, a British anti-piracy group, was restrained in his description of Google during a panel discussion on how the UK was combining government, the police and industry to combat piracy.

When asked about the role of search engines in promoting piracy, Sharp said: “What can I say? Yes, they are involved – from a distance. One very well-known search engine does work with us on occasion. They have made efforts to reduce [piracy] sites being found. But there’s an awful long way to go yet.”

“Sometimes cooperation has been good. Sometimes it has been hands off – go away, don’t talk to us,” he said, alluding to the company whose mantra is ‘Do no evil’.

Search engines “feel they are not responsible for policing the internet,” said Sharp. “They need to play a responsible part in this.”

Google, which according to a study by Massey University in New Zealand serves more ads on pirated websites in Asia than any other player, was represented at the conference by Michelle Chang, who is just two months into her role as the company’s Singapore-based APAC policy principal.

She highlighted the company’s efforts to curb piracy websites through automatic filtering, machine learning and manual enforcement, and quoted the large number of “bad advertisers” to have been removed for copyright infringement and websites delisted that contained spyware.

“We are committed to rooting out and ejecting bad actors,” she said.

A member of her audience then asked why Google did not remove whole domains that were known to carry suspect content from its system to ensure they did not come up in search results.

“We always err on the side of not censoring content,” she responded. “There’s a fine line between that and blacklisting and blocking.”

Medeiros later thanked Chang for “coming into the lion’s den” and facing a wary audience of pay-TV executives and public officials that included the chief inspector of Hong Kong Police’s commercial crime bureau.

He added that while the UK had made progress with a list of infringing websites it hopes other countries can learn from, exporting this to Asia comes with obvious barriers.

“An infringing website list is a great tool, and some governments are now adopting the British model. But what about the huge parts of the web that are Chinese, Vietnamese or Thai language?” he asked. China, it was earlier pointed out, is the world’s largest source of ad fraud.

If there was a point of agreement to emerge from the conference it was that the issue of online piracy will never fully go away, as long as pirate sites are making money.

CASBAA chairman Marcel Fenez pointed to a study conducted in the US last year that found that revenue generated by pirate sites amounted to $US207m. That figure has probably trebled by now, he suggested.

Think of the profit margin in a world where you’re not paying for content and getting this revenue.” According to US data, a single piracy site can make up to US$4m a year, with profit margins of 80-94 per cent.

As for the cost to content creators, Robert Lee, chairman of the Hong Kong Creative Industries Association, said that the territory’s recording industry had dwindled by more than a half, from US$640m in 2002 to $307m in 2012, partly due to piracy.

“We are suffering locally and overseas. The increasing number of infringing websites to watch hundreds of TV channels is hurting all content providers globally. We are not given adequate protection. Governments have been slow to react. [The problem of] piracy websites requires immediate attention.”

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