Home Affairs CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Alliance for Intellectual Property [EC 18]


Apologies for the lateness of this information, but I hope the below is of interest to your Committee’s inquiry into e-crime and in particular the increase in the use of the Internet by counterfeiters and pirates.

Established in 1998, the Alliance for Intellectual Property (IP) is a UK-based coalition of 24 trade associations and enforcement organisations interested in ensuring intellectual property rights are valued in the UK and that a robust, efficient legislative and regulatory regime exists which enables the UK to draw the greatest benefits from those rights. With a combined turnover of over £250 billion, our members include representatives of the audiovisual, music, video games and business software, and sports industries, branded manufactured goods, publishers, authors, retailers and designers.

Crime on the internet is affecting our members in a variety of ways:

Fake and potential dangerous goods are being offered for sale on the Internet via websites or over social media platforms.

Search engines are enabling fraudsters to attract Internet users to illegal sites that offer products for sale or download.

Illegal peer-2-peer filesharing of copyright protected content is continuing.

Online sites are hosting or facilitating the online distribution of protected works without the consent of the rights holder.

While copyright holders and brand owners do all they can to protect their products online, assistance is required from others in the online community to ensure that the internet is a fair and safe trading environment for consumers and businesses.

This is especially the case in instances where intermediaries can stand to gain from online IP crime, for example, through the sale of advertising on infringing websites, or from increased web traffic driven to certain sites. We are concerned that such incentives may lead to behaviour that is harmful to consumers and legitimate businesses not being correctly addressed.

An indication of the problems we face—and the assistance we believe is required—is outlined below.

SOCIAL MEDIA SITES: Over the past two years we have seen an increase in the use of social media platforms such as Facebook to advertise and trade in counterfeit goods with thousands of fake items being made available on a daily basis. For example, a recent case in Scotland saw suspected counterfeit goods estimated to be worth almost £20,000 seized by trading standards officers in Moray. The joint operation with Police Scotland came after a trading standards investigation into sales of allegedly fake goods through a local social networking group.

Trade in such fake merchandise is often done via the publication of “albums” (images of the goods available) on Facebook pages set up by counterfeiters. Alternatively, traders can operate a “closed” Facebook page with interested buyers needing to make a “friend” request in order to gain access. Once accepted as a friend, a customer can browse, comment on and purchase fake goods using various payment methods including credit/debit card, Paypal, postal order and cash. The items, in most instances, are then being posted to customers. During investigations of traders engaged in this activity, some brands have found albums containing in excess of 2000 images of counterfeit items available for purchase from a single source.

FACT (the Federation Against Copyright Theft) has also seen a dramatic increase in reports of activity on Facebook where pages or individual profiles are being used to promote pirated content online for streaming, download or access via file-sharing networks.

These social networks allow counterfeit traders and their customers to recommend a trader to other friends and contacts. As a result, many traders have in excess of 1000 “friends” to whom they can ply their trade, gaining, in effect, free advertising.

While Facebook does have a reporting and take down process, it is generally too slow and sometimes takes several weeks to remove offending items, while creating such a page can take a matter of minutes.

DOMAIN REGISTRIES: While it is relatively easy to identify the ISP used to host an infringing website, problems often arise in finding out who is actually responsible for the site itself. This is because as a registrant you can pay for your information to be hidden and to register as a private individual when in fact you are running a business. Inadequate checks are undertaken by domain registrars to confirm that the registration information, personal and financial, is correct. This means that taking action, for example serving legal notices or warnings, against these businesses is very difficult.

Information as to the identity of those behind infringing websites can also be found by doing a WHOIS (ICANN) search. However, again, the effectiveness of this is reliant on the information being correct and up to date.

SEARCH ENGINES: The appearance of infringing sites in search results is of growing concern to rights owners as search engines are increasingly consumers’ first port of call when looking for a product or service. The BPI, which represents the recorded music industry, reportedly sends approx. 3.9 million requests to Google per month of URLs which point to infringing content. FACT also sends notices to Google and other search engines. These search links are subsequently delisted by Google. Whilst Google and other search engines do remove links there is still a reliance on rights owners to proactively find the links.

However, as these URLs only relate to around 150 sites, rights owners believe search engines, as responsible companies, should not only delist the individual URLs but de-rank the actual sites. Google announced last summer a change to its search algorithm which would take into account the number of Notice and Take Downs it received against a particularly site. This information would then be used to de-rank sites against which Google had received a large number of reports. Disappointingly, rights owners report that this change has had little impact. Google’s own transparency report1 demonstrates that they have received over 3.5 million URL removal requests against illegal site filestube.com from over 2400 copyright owners in the last year, yet this site still appears high up in search results.

As these examples demonstrate, the manner in which social media networks, search engines and domain registries operate can create significant challenges. While these issues are not insurmountable, they do require commitment and co-operation from these businesses. If there is greater co-operation, we believe the Internet would be a safer place for consumers to engage in legitimate e-commerce activities, increasing confidence and ultimately allowing for an overall increase in e-commerce.

I would be delighted to discuss these issues further. I will contact your office to see if a suitable time can be found.

Susie Winter
Director General
Alliance for Intellectual Property

February 2013

Prepared 29th July 2013