About six months ago, Google began releasing data on takedown requests it received as part of a "Transparency Report." The goal was to showcase how content holders were attempting to delete links to infringing content.
Now, USC's Annenberg Innovation Lab has taken the data and used it in a way that Google probably didn't anticipate.
Annenberg has come out with a ranking of the top 10 online ad networks that place the most ads to pirate websites. And guess what? Google is No. 2.
Jonathan Taplin, director of the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab, explained to us the methodology behind the survey. He says that he took the websites that "Google considered infringing sites" -- more accurately, the domains most frequently being targeted for takedowns -- and used tools to scrape ad code from those sites. Once the ad code was gathered, the data was matched into a database, and voilà, Annenberg says it had figured out which ad networks were sending money to pirate websites.
The ad network placing the most ads on these objectionable websites was Openx. The rankings followed: Google, Exoclick, Sumotorrent, Propellerads, Yahoo, Quantcast, Media Shakers, Yesads and Infolinks.
And what does Google think of the study?
"To the extent [the study] suggests that Google ads are a major source of funds for major pirate sites, we believe it is mistaken," a Google spokesperson told the Los Angeles Times. "Over the past several years, we've taken a leadership role in this fight. The complexity of online advertising has led some to conclude, incorrectly, that the mere presence of any Google code on a site means financial support from Google."
On the other hand, Taplin tells The Hollywood Reporter, "Within the last 24 hours, Google has reached out to me and says they want to solve the problem."
Google confirmed that to us. A spokesperson added that the company is most eager to see more details.
The natural next question is what to do about the survey, which the Annenberg says it will now be releasing on a monthly basis.
More than a year ago, in the midst of the debate over the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon proposed an alternative piece of legislation entitled "OPEN," or the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act. One of its primary features was a mechanism that in some instances would have compelled ad networks to cut off funding to piracy websites.
The MPAA wasn't in favor of the legislation because it deemed it to be weak. The entertainment lobby also had significant concerns about its procedural process (such as removing private causes of action). Other observers like law professor Eric Goldman gave it a mixed review, seeing it as improvement upon SOPA but with concerns how an ad network would react upon being drawn into an ITC proceeding. Interestingly, many big web companies including Google and Yahoo endorsed the legislation, likely seeing it as less burdensome than SOPA. However, if the Annenberg survey is to be believed, Google might have shouldered the biggest lift in cutting off funding to pirate sites.
For his part, Taplin doesn't think that legislative recourse is what's needed.
"I'm tired of Washington D.C. solutions," he says. "I think it is a matter of best practice if brands themselves say we are not going to support these sites."
Taplin is citing the example of Levi's (a partner of the Annenberg Lab), which when presented his data, told its global ad agency to do something. Apparently, Levi's got results, although Taplin says he doesn't know whether the results came through the ad agency switching ad networks or the ad agency leaning on the ad network to stop placing ads on pirate sites.
"A brand like Ford or Nationwide Insurance doesn't want its ad on a porn sites," notes Taplin. "The ad networks can guarantee that it isn't. If they can guarantee that, why can't they guarantee the same things on pirate websites?"
If Taplin's efforts to shame brands into avoiding pirate websites gains steam, it could raise an interesting spectacle. Google began divulging copyright removals in the name of "openness" and possibly with an eye toward allowing the Internet community to mind governments and entertainment companies being overly assertive with claims on the copyright, privacy and security front. But corporate pressure could transform the "Transparency Report" -- and the way organizations like Annenberg are leveraging it -- into somewhat of a nuissance for Google.
That said, Google did support the OPEN Act.
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