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Lawmakers ask advertisers for Web-piracy crackdown

Congress doesn't appear to be letting up on Web piracy. A group of Congress members asks the Interactive Advertising Bureau and two other ad groups to boost efforts to fight copyright violations.

A group of Congress members has asked advertisers to start doing more to fight online piracy.

Eric Schmidt, during the Google chairman's testimony last month before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee. Greg Sandoval/CNET

According to a subscription-only post on the Politico blog, the Congressional International Anti-Piracy Caucus has written letters to three of the large advertising associations to ask that they choke off revenue to sites suspected of illegally distributing copyrighted materials.

Members of the Anti-Piracy Caucus include Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). Washington lawmakers have begun targeting the revenue of sites that allegedly distribute intellectual property, such as unauthorized copies of songs, movies, TV shows, software, and video games.

Some sites sell the materials while others give them away free of charge and generate cash from ads they post to their Web pages. The letters from the caucus were sent to the Interactive Advertising Bureau, the Association of National Advertisers, and the American Association of Advertising Agencies, according to Politico. Some of the biggest advertisers on the Web are tech companies, including Yahoo, Netflix, Amazon, and Google. The lawmakers want the associations to disclose what they're doing to fight piracy.

President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and a number of prominent senators have promised to step up the fight against Web piracy. They say it harms the U.S. economy by stifling sales and killing jobs. In the Senate, there's an effort to pass the Protect IP Act, a bill that equips the government with the power to speed up the process of removing suspected pirate sites from the Web.

Part of the government's strategy is to block legitimate companies, such as credit card providers, Internet search engines, and bandwidth suppliers from doing business with accused pirate sites.

Members of the caucus who wrote the letter said that in addition to helping fund piracy, the ads placed on the alleged pirate sites give visitors the impression that they're legitimate, according to Politico.

Mike Zaneis, general counsel for the Interactive Advertising Bureau, told CNET that the group understands what the antipiracy caucus is trying to accomplish but he said the piracy problem is far too complex to expect easy answers. He said the IAB is preparing a response to the caucus.

Zaneis acknowledges that some of these accused sites are indeed operated by determined criminals. What this means is that they are skilled at masking their practices. Sometimes they will contract with an ad network and run a legitimate business for a while in case the network does check if it's operating legally. Later, the operators switch to illegitimate practices. In addition, Zaneis said some people steal "ad tags," the code that legitimate site operators post to their sites to communicate with the servers of an ad network. The code tells the network that they are legitimate ad distributors.

"It's difficult to police all of this on a real-time basis when you're talking about millions of Web sites," Zaneis said. "There's no panacea for online piracy."

The government has been leaning on Google for a while to not only block the ability of suspected pirate sites to post the company's ads but to also help boost the profile in search results of legitimate content.

Last month, during a hearing held by a Senate Judiciary subcommittee about whether Google violates antitrust laws, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt said the company is working on a technological fix to identifying pirate sites but he suggested it won't happen overnight.

Schmidt said that finding an automated way to do identify a pirate site isn't simple. Meanwhile, Google is also lobbying lawmakers behind the scenes to fight piracy in ways that don't put too much of the burden of policing the Web on Internet search engines, credit card companies, and Internet service providers.