Peter Szyszko, Founder and CEO of White Bullet, says that with ads from big-name brands regularly detected in apps carrying pirated sport and entertainment content, brands need to keep a close eye on exactly where their in-app ads appear.
Digital technology is invariably sold to us as a clean, gleaming thing. Look at our phones, our smart TVs, our set-top gadgets and premium content hubs. What could be shinier or more reassuring?
But as a technology and data analytics company that tracks the astonishingly dynamic online piracy landscape, we see a far dirtier side of digital, characterised by stolen content, dodgy sites, big-time fraud and the pervasive influence of organised crime.
Most of us know all these things are to be found on the open web, where we all think twice before letting our children or our brand advertising out to play. Mobile, however, can easily feel like something else – a place of safety and walled gardens, in which, according to eMarketer, we spend 90 per cent of our time in apps and scarcely stray onto the open web at all. We are also in the early stages of a huge shift to connected and over-the-top (OTT) TV, which is shifting our app habit from small to large screens. Surely, in a world of apps, consumers and safety-conscious brand advertisers can rejoice in a cleaned-up experience?
Bad follows good
An inevitable fact about shifting trends of media consumption, however, is that where the good stuff goes, the bad stuff smartly follows. And if illegal pirate content is rife on the web – in stolen streams of films, sport and TV, invariably funded by the programmatic advertising budgets of unsuspecting brands – the same is true of the in-app ecosystem. The difference is that, until now, such in-app piracy has been all but impossible to track.
When we contemplate online piracy in the mobile space, we see three main areas. The first of these is the mobile web, which closely shares its advertising, its illegal publishers – and hence the huge scale of its piracy problem – with the desktop web.
Pirate publishers constantly change domains to stay ahead of the authorities, and static block-lists don’t work because they cannot keep up. In this dicey territory, AI technology and legal know-how are vital tools to keep programmatic brand advertising out of the clutches of such services.
Content pirates and apps
Secondly, there are the mobile apps, which increasingly are powerful magnets for premium advertising, and for content pirates. Given the targeting properties of mobile, in-app ads pay far more than those on the web, and wily and sophisticated criminals have been quick to find ways to tap into that opportunity.
Despite the fact that iTunes and Google Play apply guidelines to the apps they showcase, nonetheless pirate streaming apps flow freely into the market. Side-loaded apps are widely available from competing off-market hubs, and many of the less respectable kind are finding their way into connected TV and OTT services too: our third category of mobile piracy.
The challenge of tracking and evaluating the legality of such apps puts them in an opaque and hazardous new category for any advertiser with a sensible level of concern for their own brand safety.
In truth, it is all too easy for brands to find their mobile advertising hoovered up by pirate services. Our unique ability to track in-app ads reveals that at least a quarter of ads detected in apps carrying pirated sport and entertainment content come from big-name brands – compared to between 5 per cent and 10 per cent of the ads on web-based pirate streaming sites.
Such insights immediately catapult in-app advertising – and by extension mobile – to the forefront of the online piracy fight, and ought to ring alarm bells among advertisers eagerly exploring this new frontier of connected content.
We can clearly see a shift taking place towards a different avenue of piracy. There is far more branded advertising within apps, almost no transparency in the ad supply chain and no law-enforcement programmes to tackle it, in the way the police and the Intellectual Property Office have successfully attacked web-based online piracy.
So as the fog of mystery begins to lift from the in-app advertising space, revealing much the same bad actors as are found on the web, there should be no doubt. Mobile, CTV and OTT are the future of entertainment, but they are also the future of a sophisticated branch of crime that pillages the advertising business to line the pockets of smart and adaptable villains. The only remedy is to be as adaptable and as smart as them.