UK police start replacing ads on copyright-infringement sites with warnings

Copyright stamp at laptop computer

At the moment, the U.K.’s crackdown on online copyright infringement is thankfully more about warning people off certain services than cutting off their internet connections. Another major strand of the campaign, falling under a police initiative called Operation Creative, has been to go after the advertising – and therefore the funding – on infringement-aiding websites.

When Operation Creative was trialled late last year, one unintended consequence of urging reputable advertisers to withdraw their ads was that malware-laden or porn-promoting ads stepped in to fill the gap. On Tuesday, the City of London Police unveiled its solution to this problem: replacing ads on the offending websites with official police banners that warn users that the site is under investigation.

This gets rid of the unfortunate malware issue while also reminding unlawful downloaders that the cops are watching the site in question, much as their ISPs now warn them that their own infringements have also been noted.

“Highly unlikely” to affect non-U.K. users

The Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit (PIPCU) developed its ad-replacement technique alongside Project Sunblock, normally a “brand protection” company that makes sure big brands’ ads don’t get shown next to inappropriate material.

According to Project Sunblock COO Andrew Goode — who didn’t want to go into too much detail on the workings of the system, given that this is a police operation — the police present his company with a list of sites to be targeted and Project Sunblock identifies the advertising elements of the webpages and covers them with the warning banner.

Goode said the system should only replace ads that are targeting users in the U.K., so it was “highly unlikely” that it would affect what people elsewhere in the world see, but “we don’t really determine where the ads come from.”

“If you’re served in Germany, you’re not going to be served ads originating from the U.K.,” Goode said.

Not the first resort

The police said in a statement that they only take such action after contacting the site owners – who are generally located outside the U.K., hence the need for non-judicial measures – and offering them “the opportunity to engage with the police, to correct their behavior and to begin to operate legitimately.”

If the site operators don’t play ball, other measures can include asking the domain registrar to suspend the site, and putting it on an “infringing website list” that warns off legitimate advertisers. The Newzbin2 precedent also makes it possible to get a court order forcing British ISPs to block access to infringing sites, though that’s a bothersome process and people can always get round such things anyway.

In terms of not making infringers more vulnerable to malware, the ad-replacement strategy is a vast improvement on the tactics used in the Operation Creative pilot. I have to say, though, that I feel deeply uncomfortable with the idea of the authorities being able to manipulate what people see online, down to specific elements of the webpage. It’s creepy and I really wouldn’t like to see such techniques spread to other use-cases.

I also hope that Project Sunblock’s system really doesn’t affect what users in other countries see. Different countries have different laws on such matters, and it would be a pity if a British police operation overrode those laws.

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