Few people will have been happier at Andrew Mitchell’s latest outburst than online scammer Grant Shapps. Whilst last week’s papers could have been about the shady world of Shapps’ online alter-ego Michael Green, instead an errant toff’s vile behaviour stole the front pages and obscured a far bigger scandal within this Government’s ranks.
Whilst Shapps’ dubious ‘get rich quick’ schemes reveal the character of the new Tory party chairman, they probably didn’t break the law. And perhaps Shapps’ really can turn $500 into $20k in just 20 days as he claims – in which case we should put the fucker to work in the Treasury and let the good times roll.
It is his former company’s spam website generating software however that will be the focus of any police investigation. Sadly most coppers are not the sharpest tools particularly when it comes to the internet. So in simple language, here’s an explanation of what Shapps and his company did, why it was wrong and more importantly why it was probably illegal.
Shapps company, Howtocorp, produced a piece of software which automatically generates websites. Website owners can then place advertising, such as Google Adsense on the site and generate income.
The software works by ‘scraping’ content from other websites. So for example, if you wanted to run a website about posh cars, which may attract significant advertising cash, you would simply type some keywords into the software such as Mercedes, luxury cars, Jaguar etc.
The software will then search for online content on other people’s websites which matches the keywords you’ve chosen and automatically publish the content on your own website. This means that hundreds of websites can be generated very quickly. You can then add Google Adsense or other advertising networks to your websites. Even if each site only generates a small amount of advertising cash it all adds up. Grant Shapps is a very rich man and unlike most Tories he didn’t inherit his wealth. How much of his cash came from activities of dubious legality may never be known.
Google Adsense works by scanning the content on your website and attempting to match it with appropriate advertising. In the above example a luxury car showroom may use Adsense to have their business advertised on websites about posh cars.
The businesses who use Adsense and other ad networks either pay each time someone clicks on their advert or in some cases according to how many times the advert is seen ie the number of hits on the website which displays the ad.
These type of websites are banned by google’s terms and conditions and despised by most internet users who would far rather see quality websites with original content than endless spammy sites which exist purely to generate advertising revenue.
In a crude attempt to get round google’s terms and conditions, Shapps’ software automatically spun the content. This just means changing a few words around so that google is tricked into thinking it is original content.
Copyright violation is both a criminal and a civil offence. Whether ‘spun’ content is a violation of copyright under UK law would require a test case. Under US law the situation is a little clearer according to this lawyer who confirms that the practice would be illegal. As Shapps (or his wife) registered their website in the US under a fake name, this would be an aggravating factor which could lead to up to seven years in prison.
Theresa May recently approved US attempts to extradite Richard O’Dwyer to the US on charges of copyright violation. O’Dwyer is appealing. His lawyers could do worse than point out that the Tory party chairman acted in much the same way.
It will be down to the CPS ultimately to decide whether they wish to pursue Shapps or the company, which is now controlled by his wife. Don’t hold your breath. It’s only a matter of time before someone is hauled before the courts to establish the legality of ‘spun content’ but the CPS are unlikely to make a government minister, no matter how crooked, the first offender.
Of equal interest to the CPS should be the question of fraud. Every website who signs up to Google Adsense agrees to abide by the Terms and Conditions. A business contract is created, one that Shapps and his company have clearly breached. More importantly the company always intended to be in breach of these terms & conditions. The was a deliberate and systematic attempt to generate revenue from Google Adsense – and by proxy the many small businesses who use the service – by thoroughly dishonest means.
Imagine this took place offline. A shady publisher claims to advertisers that they intend to publish a magazine featuring original content from up and coming writers. Instead they simply steal previously published content from other magazines. Their magazine, and their whole sales pitch, would be just as much of a fraud as someone promising you a genuine Rolex whist actually flogging you something from Argos with Rolex scrawled across the front in Tippex.
This is what Shapps and his former company have done and they are no different to the geezer knocking out fake DVDs down the market.
There is no question that Shapps’ company employed these dodgy methods to make cash themselves, as this blogpost (now cached after the original blog ‘disappeared’ last week) easily establishes. They also not only incited this behaviour in others but arguably aided and abetted it.
Shapps sold this software for $297 promising untold wealth to gullible purchasers. When questioned about whether this software was in breach of google rules the company attempted to vehemently deny it. The truth is any website using this software, however naively, is likely to find themselves not just banned from the google advertising networks, but also delisted from google search results. Once again Howtocorp knowingly misled customers about what they were actually buying.
It is hard to argue that Shapps and his company acted within the law. Unfortunately it is not in google’s interests to bring a prosecution. They would far rather that the many businesses who use Google Adsense were unaware of the number of spammy fake websites that trick google into hosting ads with them.
Whether the police investigation which has been called for by the Labour MP Steve McCabe results in charges remains to be seen. But if it doesn’t it is really only down to a lack of knowledge about how the internet actually works amongst coppers and prosecutors than any true exoneration of Shapps and his sleazy online scam.
Howtocorp’s websites are currently disappearing from the internet faster than the Lib Dem’s electoral prospects. The company’s Google Adsense accounts will reveal a wealth of information and Shapps can’t hide those.
And if all that’s not enough, Grant Shapps just knocked down Ringo Starr’s house.