(Top image: a screen shot of a bet365 pop-up advert on a streaming website)
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Pop-up adverts on illegal TV streaming websites are usually the domain of get-rich-quick scams, "The Brit Method" and horny housewives looking to hook-up in your area, but legitimate companies are also using the seedier side of the web to advertise their services.
Betting firms, including Bet365 and Sky Bet, are in part funding TV piracy sites, such as Watch Series, by paying for pop-up advertising on the sites. A number of links to popular TV shows on Watch Series – including Game of Thrones, Suits and The Walking Dead – feature adverts for betting sites.
"No gambling firms licensed by the Gambling Commission should be advertising on websites that breach copyright regulations, giving them a look of legitimacy," said Gambling Minister, Tracey Crouch.
Streaming sites like Watch Series attempt to circumvent copyright regulation by providing links to pirated content, without actually hosting the content themselves. They exist in a legal grey area by acting as a conduit between pirated content and viewers. However, they are regularly targeted by anti-piracy operations, often changing domain names to avoid being blocked by internet service providers. It is a game of cat and mouse that piracy sites are currently winning, despite a recent agreement between Google, Microsoft and the UK Intellectual Property Office to move infringing sites further down search results.
Authorities are determined to stop copyright infringing sites operating so openly because of the scale of the illegal profits they make. A 2014 report from the Digital Citizens Alliance estimated that piracy websites generated $227 million (£183 million) that year from advertising, and found that even lesser-known sites can make upwards of $100,000 (£81,000) a year.
"We know that lifetime problem gamblers are influenced when they're young and that their habits start when they're young, so I think we should be concerned about young people receiving advertising and advertising interrupting other activities when they are below the age that it is legal to gamble."
To crack down on sites that are profiting from piracy, City of London Police have launched "Operation Creative", an initiative to identify and blacklist websites that breach copyright, encouraging digital advertisers not to do business with sites infringing the law.
The Gambling Commission, which regulates British betting firms, is also involved in the initiative. The commission is in charge of handing out gambling licences in accordance with its regulations – but is also funded by the industry through fees set by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. "In 2015 our involvement in an Operation Creative pilot exercise led to a 36 percent decrease in gambling advertisements appearing on websites providing unauthorised access to copyrighted content," a Gambling Commission spokesperson said.
The spokesperson confirmed to VICE that as part of their regulations "gambling operators must not advertise on websites which provide unauthorised access to copyrighted content", but a number of firms do not appear to be paying attention. There was no suggestion from the commission that any licenses will be revoked, despite continued breach of regulation by gambling firms.
Marc Etches, CEO of charity Gamble Aware, argues that because the industry is largely self-regulated, through the code of practice drawn up between businesses and the Gambling Commission, there are issues with advertising in the gambling industry. "It is self regulation and I would say that there are some gaps in there," Etches said. "So that code of advertising doesn't cover perimeter advertising around sports grounds, for example; it doesn't cover advertising or promotion of gambling on sports shirts. So there certainly are some gaps in it."
Betting firms are facing tougher regulation for daytime TV and social media adverts, as part of a government review into fixed-odds betting terminals, which have become a huge source of income for the industry (and HMRC). However, by advertising on illegal streaming websites, betting firms have found an area to advertise in that is, by nature of its illegality, free from regulation.
Offending companies are not just advertising on TV piracy websites, with illegal sports streaming sites also playing host to numerous gambling adverts. Watch Wrestling, which provides free links to wrestling shows and pay-per-views, has adverts for Bet365, while popular live sports streaming site First Row Sports has adverts for Austrian gambling firm Bwin embedded in many of its livestreams. Bet365 adverts also appeared on First Row Sport's streams of the David Haye vs Tony Bellew fight at the beginning of March.
On Watch Series gambling adverts by Bet365 and Noivbet also appeared next to programmes primarily aimed at children, such as Dragon Ball Z and SpongeBob SquarePants, which raised further concerns with Gamble Aware.
"We know that lifetime problem gamblers are influenced when they're young and that their habits start when they're young," said Etches. "So I think we should be concerned about young people receiving advertising and advertising interrupting other activities when they are below the age that it is legal to gamble."
This is not the first case of betting firms circumventing regulation – or shrugging it off entirely. Whether drawing in punters through "affiliated" betting tipsters who drum up business through Twitter, or refusing to pay out to persistent winners, betting firms are adept at exploiting the grey areas in regulation to ensure the house always wins.
SkyBet, bet365 and Bwin did not respond to numerous requests for comment.