For piracy to flourish, it requires more than crafty criminals and willing users. And its impact goes well beyond the harm it does to creators. Content theft is a $2.34 billion criminal ecosystem that mirrors the legitimate world of Netflix, Hulu, and Apple+.
None of this is a shock to those that track piracy.
But here’s something that may surprise you: some of our most iconic companies – Amazon, Facebook, and Google – funneled what is likely tens of millions of dollars to pirate operators over the last year. How? Through advertising on illicit apps that offer pirated content. A year-long investigation by the Digital Citizens Alliance and White Bullet found that major brands paid piracy websites and apps an estimated $100 million over the last year.
This is how piracy flourishes. And it’s bad news for more than just creators. It affects consumers, with 1 in 3 users of piracy websites and apps reporting they have had an issue with malware. It thwarts law enforcement – on some piracy apps, the users allow operators to mirror their IP connection, which enables criminals to operate under the radar. And it can even have national security implications – a year ago, investigators found that a terrorist channel that was banned from broadcasting in the United States was available on half of the pirate platforms.
Which brings us back to major brands. Amazon, Facebook, and Google are perhaps the three most digitally sophisticated companies in the world. Yet, somehow their advertising was also the most likely to appear on illegal pirate apps during the investigation. There seems to be two possibilities: they don’t know, or they know, and they don’t care.
Each person must draw their own conclusions on what the answer is, but it’s worth noting that, in one instance, White Bullet found that Google used its own ad tech to place its own ad on a piracy app.
But there is good news: Amazon took steps to prevent its advertising from showing up on piracy apps after it was informed of it. Hopefully, the company will remain vigilant.
Advertising is a complex ecosystem that involves a myriad of brands, ad agencies, and ad tech to create, negotiate, and place ads on digital platforms. But that cannot be an excuse for why well-known companies fund criminals. Simply put, our major brands must do better.