Congress moves against ad-supported piracy

How surprised would you be if you went to your local Honda dealer and bought a car, but when you tried to register it you were told it was stolen property?

What if you went to Target and bought a blender, but when you filled out the warranty card you were told it already belonged to someone else?

Things like this don’t happen, right? Companies like Honda and Target are respectable merchants who would never encourage the distribution of stolen property. Right? Wrong. They do. So do companies like Kraft, Lego, and the makers of Claritin. Every day.

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It sounds insane, but Honda, Toyota, Target, Kraft, Lego, and Claritin are spending gobs of money every day to finance theft – whether they know it or not.

According to The Wall Street Journal, a recent tour of the web revealed literally hundreds of so-called “file-sharing” websites offering stolen content that featured advertising paid for by all of the above companies. An ad for Velveeta ran before an illegally hosted episode of “Game of Thrones.” A Honda spot appeared alongside a pirated episode of “Mad Men.”

Plainly put: These file-sharing sites are stealing, and these well-known major brands are paying them to do it.

Of course, the companies make a dubious argument that they aren’t responsible. See, they give their ad dollars to middlemen (internet advertising purveyors with names like Propellerads, ExoClick and Adcash) and these middlemen are the ones who use that money to place ads on sites that traffic in stolen content. Sometimes one middleman gives money to another middleman. It’s complicated.

In fact, it’s so complicated the companies might claim “There’s nothing we can do.” Uh-huh. Question: If Honda ads started showing up on porn sites, do we not think someone over at Honda would get pretty damn aggressive about getting them taken down?

The technology exists. They can avoid placing ads on pirate sites. The question is: Will they?

To their credit, Congress recently called on companies and advertisers to do this very thing. I would like to thank them for their initiative. The Congressional anti-piracy caucus led by Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), and Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), sent a letter to several key advertising associations urging ad networks to develop "greater specificity" about how to stop legitimate ads from ending up on pirate sites, and to create a way to measure how effective those steps are.

These major brands can avoid funding illegal activity. They can. The question is: Will they?

Berg is a film and television writer and director whose credits include “Seinfeld”, “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” and The Dictator. He is currently executive producer on the HBO comedy series "Silicon Valley."