Did you know that Lexus marketing money has wound up in the hands of a bestiality video website? I certainly didn't either, and it's a sure bet that Toyota Motor Company, which owns the Lexus brand, didn't mean that to happen. But it's just one striking example of how multinational companies help fund the web's darker side.
David Lowery, the independent musician, producer, business lecturer and editor of the Trichordist blog, presented the evidence last night in a discussion on the subject of brand-supported "dark side" websites at the University of Westminster.
There was a strong panel present to discuss Lowery's hypothesis, including Google's public policy manager Theo Bertram and the UK Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB)'s Alexandra Scott.
Lowery explained that complicated, shadowy online ad networks help fund some of the web's worst sites: varying from those whose content is pirated all the way to ones concerned with extreme or illegal porn and even human trafficking. This makes it harder for legitimate sites like Spotify - and even Google itself - to attract advertising. USC Annenberg's Innovation Lab has been tracking the multinationals' support for these sites and found huge brands' ad budgets end up supporting the activity.
The Innovation Lab study found that the top ad agencies involved in placing the brands include (in order of frequency): Openx; Google; Exoclick; Sumotorrent; Propellerads; and Yahoo!. Brands include American Express, BMW, Ford, HP and Virgin Atlantic.
Typically, the brands themselves don't know they're helping enrich the dark side. When Levi's was told it was supporting pirate sites, it promptly told its ad agency to cut the funding.
As Lowery points out, however, after trawling terabytes of evidence:
"I've never seen Coca Cola or Apple advertisements on a hardcore pornography or pirate site. If Apple can control it, so can others."
Lowery doesn't see control of advertising money as a panacea but "a nudge to consumers". The dark sites only work because of the scale of the traffic, he says, "so let's break them up into smaller pieces".
The Camper van Beethoven and Cracker frontman isn't a hardliner on intellectual property rights. He describes himself as "ambivalent about informal file sharing", and even used early file sharing sites himself to distribute live recordings. But he's baffled why the "low-hanging fruit" of commercial, money-making, advertising-supported piracy flourishes. In a previous life Lowery was a quants guy - he has a maths and programming background - and he thinks the complexity is deliberately constructed so nobody carries the can.
"When things get complex it's typically to hide some institution from liability," said Lowery. "In finance, there's a saying: 'Complexity is fraud'".
Google's own online advertising operations are famously complex and highly opaque, but if the ads monolith benefits from piracy and porn it does so only indirectly - for instance when its paid ads appear next to a list of dark websites someone has searched for.
The IAB's Scott said that most advertisers don't know that their ads are appearing next to pirated content, or porn, or both - or worse. When they find out, there's reputational damage. But the long and complex chain of transactions isn't being closely watched.
For his part, Google's Theo Bertram welcomed initiatives to "drain the swamp of dodgy networks, dodgy agencies and dodgy sites", and said a framework developed in partnership with the British Phonographic Institute and the IAB would be revealed shortly.
"The IAB has been great," said Geoff Taylor of the BPI, "and Google is helping".
Lowery pointed out that going after the world's worst web hosts could be fruitful. Five web hosts in particular host the sites for much of the ad-supported hardcore porn. And he called on Google to do more. Google already acts as judge and jury on what sites we should see - making millions that it regards as "spammy" or low quality disappear.
That sort of talk often leads to harsh criticism on free-speech grounds, but Lowery was having no truck with that.
"I don't buy the argument that this is censorship," said Lowery. "There are a hundred ways of getting to a site and Google is a private company. Either Google is the web, in which case we regulate it, or it's a private company, in which case it's not 'censorship'".
MusicAlly has a detailed report on the discussion, here. ®