Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit

The Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit (PIPCU) at the City of London Police became operational in September 2013.[1] It was established by the City of London Police and the Intellectual Property Office (IPO).[2]

The unit was first announced[3] in December 2012 by Vince Cable MP. It is funded by the Intellectual Property Office.

Funding and size

The Unit was set up with £2.65 million from the government, through the IPO.[4] In a parliamentary question, the Shadow Minister for Home Affairs, Baroness Neville-Jones said the plan was to have the Unit funded by industry stakeholders after an initial period.[5]

In October 2014 it was announced that the unit would receive an additional £3 million in government funding to cover operations up to 2017.[6] Funding via IPO was £0.975m for 2013-14, and £1.423m for 2014-15.[7]

In 2015/2016 it consisted of 10.5 full time staff members (and was of approximate size before then).[8]

Funding of £3m has been granted by the IPO for 2017-19.[9]

Current programmes

PIPCU’s current initiatives include:

  • Operation Ashiko, concerning websites trading in trademark infringing goods
  • Operation Creative, concerning websites infringing or facilitating infringement of copyright
  • Operation Sanction

Operation Ashiko: .uk trademark and counterfeit suspensions

Operation Ashiko is a partnership with Nominet, as can be seen from their template notice, which addresses the domain registrar and Nominet.[10]

PIPCU have roughly doubled the number of suspension requests they make each year, reaching over 13,000 in 2016-17 according to Nominet’s annual report statistics.

PIPCU sends details of websites that they allege are infringing trademarks and are engaging in fraud. The sites can therefore range from sale of grey market goods, through to counterfeit drugs and attempts to gain access to credit card details, or simply to take payments without any intention to supply anything.

The notifications directed to Nominet state that:

“By allowing the domain name to resolve, you are facilitating serious crime. We therefore request XXX investigate these domain name(s) for breach of your terms and conditions and, if a breach is found, take steps to prevent the domain name(s) from being used for a minimum period of 12 months (or the expiry of the domain name(s) if sooner).

“In the event that XXX fails to take action within 48 hours of receipt of this request, we request Nominet investigate these domain name(s) for breach of their terms and conditions and, if a breach is found, take steps to prevent the domain name(s) from being used for a minimum period of 12 months (or the expiry of the domain name(s) if sooner).”[11]

PIPCU also attempt to give Nominet a legal incentive to taking action, by asserting that:

“this PDF is also notification under Section 328 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002[12]

Section 328 is being used by PIPCU to assert that—once Nominet are made aware—continuing to supply or allow a domain registration could be an offence, as it constitutes making “arrangements” for use of criminal property.

They state in their notice that

“Websites are brought to the attention of the Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit from other Law Enforcement agencies, Various Trading Standards Departments, industry and the general public (often after they have become victims themselves). These reports are then researched and an assessment formed regarding the level of criminality. Only Websites/Domain names that meet a required threshold are then targeted.

“Most of these Websites/Domain names are controlled by Organised Criminal Networks (OCN’s) and/or are linked to other Websites/Domains also engaged in this type of criminality.

“The registrant or the person(s) controlling these Websites/Domain names is committing offences relating to Section 2 of the Fraud Act 2006.”[13]

While the notice asserts that standards of evidence have been met, the notice does not provide for an appeals mechanism, nor suggests that domain owners ought to be contacted for a response, nor sets out the evidence, nor shows nor expects any court supervision in issuing the takedown notices.

Dangers of domain suspensions

Although PIPCU’s objective is to protect consumers from buying low quality fake goods, or becoming the victims‘ of fraud, domain suspension is open to some obvious criticisms.

In particular, suspended domains appear to a visitor to have simply disappeared, leaving a victim of crime unable to ascertain what has happened. Nor are they given any warning about what they have been victims of, nor are they able to report crimes or supply evidence to the police.

From this perspective, domain seizures along with clear notices would offer victims and the public much greater transparency and accountability. This approach may require PIPCU to take legal responsibility for the seizure, which may be best met through legislative change. The forthcoming Consumer Protection Cooperation Regulation would be an opportunity to develop a safer and more accountable approach.

Operation Creative: copyright enforcement

Operation Creative seeks to disrupt or stop copyright infringing activities. One of the measures taken is to issue domain suspension requests. These are often directed to overseas operators with little or no knowledge of the UK legal system.

According to PIPCU’s website:

rights holders in the creative industries identify and report copyright infringing websites to PIPCU, providing a detailed package of evidence indicating how the site is involved in illegal copyright infringement. Officers from PIPCU then evaluate the websites and verify whether they are infringing copyright. At the first instance of a website being confirmed as providing copyright infringing content, the site owner is contacted by officers at PIPCU and offered the opportunity to engage with the police, to correct their behaviour and to begin to operate legitimately.

If a website fails to comply and engage with the police, then a variety of other tactical options may be used including; contacting the domain registrar to seek suspension of the site, advert replacement and disrupting advertising revenue through the use of an Infringing Website List (IWL).[14]

Copyright domain seizures

The notification for Operation Creative tells domain registrars that they should take action under the ICANN 2013 Registrar Accreditation Agreement:

under the 2013 RAA it is the Registrar's affirmative duty - not the registrant's -- to investigate and respond appropriately (Section 3.18.1) to reports of illegal activity. Merely passing on the complaint to the registrant (particularly one who is engaged in the illegal activity) does not, standing alone, constitute an adequate investigation as to the nature of the claims, and in our view, would not constitute compliance with the requirements of 3.18.1. …

PIPCU is aware that registrars cannot be expected to be experts on copyright matters and associated laws, and for that reason, PIPCU will assist any registrar to explain which laws and regulations are considered applicable under Section 1.13 of the 2013 RAA, and explain how any domain names are (or are not) in violation of UK laws and regulations.

Whilst PIPCU will provide advice with regards to UK laws and regulations, PIPCU is satisfied that the offending website is operating in contravention of those laws and that failure to take action on your part will constitute a breach of the 2013 RAA and that a report to ICANN will be made noting this failure.[15]

The duty is set out in clause 3.18, while 1.13 defines illegal activity as including “applicable law”. However, 3.18 creates a duty to investigate reports of abuse, but no particular duty to act.

Complainants should also make “well-founded reports” (3.18.1) so that the registrar can investigate. However, the domain suspension notice gives two standards for establishing criminality, neither of which is a UK court order requiring domain suspension. Nor is evidence supplied in the suspension notice. It merely asserts that it exists:

Domains listed have been evidenced either in the form of a Police Witness Statement detailing the criminality and Infringement from persons representing Content Protection Organisations on behalf of rights holders for the Creative Industries.

Alternatively, some have outstanding court orders from other competent jurisdictions to enable the blocking of the sites by Internet Service Providers.[16]

Thus a Registrar could argue that PIPCU’s notices are not sufficiently detailed to constitute a valid abuse complaint requiring them to investigate.

In any case, outside of the UK, it is unclear that a Registrar should treat these notices any differently to valid complaints from copyright owners’ organisations, since in practice PIPCU’s notices are statements that they hold a complaint from these groups in the form of a witness statement.

Although it is not mentioned in the notice, the 2013 RAA would allow PIPCU to instruct UK-based registrars to respond within 24 hours, assuming PIPCU’s complaint is properly made and demonstrates that it is “well-founded”,

Domain pointing

Their domain suspension template shows that they have been requesting redirection of domains under Operation Creative:

6. Redirect of the domain to this address:

We request that the aforementioned domain(s) are redirected to the PIPCU Warning Page located at IP address:

83.138.166.114[17]

Nevertheless, this practice seems to have ceased, as the web address has ceased to respond.

Advertiser blacklist

Pipcu-project-sunblock.png

PIPCU maintains the Infringing Website List, [18] effectively a secret blacklist of websites accused of facilitating copyright infringement. Digital advertisers can apply for access to the list with the intention that they cease advertising on them.[19] The list is created by IBM crawling and categorising web pages[20] and is verified by the City of London Police.[21] It was reported to contain "around 70 websites" in July 2014.[22] The content of the list is not made available to the public, and FoI requests are rejected[23] citing the Section 30 exception for investigations.

In July 2014[24][25] PIPCU began replacing advertisements on sites listed on the "Infringing Website List" with warnings that the site was breaking the law. (examples)

In March 2017, PIPCU claimed to have reduced spending on the listed sites by 64% in the previous 12 months.[26]

In 2016 the Gambling Commission announced new licensing conditions on gambling operators that would prevent them from advertising on sites "providing unauthorised access to copyrighted content"[27] and advises the use of the Infringing Website List for compliance.

Proxy operator arrest

The operator of the proxy service Immunicity was arrested in August 2014 - and, as with previous sites, the domain was pointed to PIPCU. The domain expires in 2015, after which it was registered by a third-party.

Domain suspensions and temporary “seizure”

Both Operations Ashiko (trade mark) and Creative (copyright) generate requests for domains to be removed from their owner’s control.

In October 2013 PIPCU sent an email to DNS registrar EasyDNS demanding that they redirect a specific domain to an IP address (83.138.166.114) describing the domain as being under criminal investigation.[28]

Over it's first year over 2000 co.uk domains were suspended at PIPCU's request.[29] Most of these requests related to Ashiko.

Domain suspension templates

  1. Operation Ashiko
  2. Operation Creative

Note that these make the argument that seizures or takedowns may be needed in order for the domain provider or host to avoid committing an offence under Section 328 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.

Removal of payment facilities

"PIPCU is working to remove payment provisions from infringing websites using money laundering legislation, and in 2014 removed 4,650 offending sites with a ‘.co.uk’ address."[30]

External relationships

PIPCU has formal agreements with:[31]

Links

Operational manuals

Statistics

References

  1. New Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit launches with early morning arrests in Birmingham, City of London Police, 2013-09-13
  2. about PIPCU, 01/08/2014
  3. Intellectual property crime unit to be set up by City police, Guardian, 2012-12-17
  4. New unit to tackle online piracy and counterfeit crime, IPO press release, 2013-06-28
  5. Hansard Police Intellectual Property Unit 2014-08-01
  6. £3 million government cash boost to tackle digital piracy and fake goods, GOV.UK, 2014-10-23
  7. Hansard, 2016-02-07
  8. Hansard written question, 2016-02-19
  9. https://www.lawgazette.co.uk/law/ip-police-get-3m-boost/5062507.article IP police get £3m boost], Law Gazette, 22 August 2017
  10. APPLICATION FOR CLOSURE OF A DOMAIN NAME(S) USED IN CRIME, PIPCU, whatdotheyknow.com
  11. APPLICATION FOR CLOSURE OF A DOMAIN NAME(S) USED IN CRIME, PIPCU, whatdotheyknow.com
  12. APPLICATION FOR CLOSURE OF A DOMAIN NAME(S) USED IN CRIME, PIPCU, whatdotheyknow.com
  13. APPLICATION FOR CLOSURE OF A DOMAIN NAME(S) USED IN CRIME, PIPCU, whatdotheyknow.com
  14. Operation Creative and the Infringing Website List (IWL), PIPCU, cityoflondonpolice.gov.uk
  15. 7. Domain suspension template, 7 Further Assistance or Information, PIPCU, whatdotheyknow.com
  16. 7. Domain suspension template, page 3, PIPCU, whatdotheyknow.com
  17. 7. Domain suspension template, 6. Redirect of the domain to this address. PIPCU, whatdotheyknow.com
  18. UK Police Launch Pirate Site Blacklist for Advertisers, TorrentFreak, 2014-03-31
  19. City of London Police call on advertising and brand sectors to help tackle cyber crime, PIPCU, 2014-03-31
  20. Project Sunblock "IBM crawls and categorises 150 million URLs and images every month, crucially at page level not just the domain"
  21. Hansard, 2014-07-28 - "...identified by the creative industries and evidenced and verified by the City of London Police unit"
  22. UK Police Replacing Ads On Piracy Sites With Warnings, TechCrunch, 2014-07-29
  23. Infringing website list, WhatDoTheyKnow
  24. Operation Creative, 2014-07-09
  25. Police placing anti-piracy warning ads on illegal sites, BBC, 2014-07-29
  26. Operation Creative sees 64 per cent drop in UK advertising, 2017-03-02
  27. UK forbids gambling services from advertising on pirate sites, TorrentFreak, 2016-06-13
  28. Whatever Happened to "Due Process" ?, EasyDNS, 2013-10-08
  29. Neville-Rolfe: Better enforcement tackling the rise in online intellectual property crime, 2014-10-10
  30. Hansard, 2015-01-28
  31. Policies and agreements for PIPCU FOI request What Do They Know, 5 May 2017