Ending whack-a-mole: Why the way we tackle #IllegalStreaming isn’t working

| March 19, 2018

Whether they’re hunched over their laptops or down the local pub watching the match with a pint, wherever fans of the beautiful game are, you’ll likely find illegal streaming. Put off by what many see as prohibitive subscription costs, a significant number of fans of football and indeed many other sports now consume their football, boxing, rugby or cricket illegally, much to the consternation of those with the rights to broadcast – and the European Union.

Bolstered by a 2017 decision of the European Court of Justice, which found that illegal streaming breaches the 2001 Copyright Directive, the sports industry is fighting back. According to data compiled by professional services firm PPL, sports industry companies made up three of the top 10 companies with the most claims for copyright infringement last year, with the Football Association filing 36 cases, Sky filing 12 and BT filing 11.

In the Netherlands, the Premier League was successful in its court case against internet hosting provider Ecatel for what it saw as its facilitation of illegal streaming, with a Dutch district court in the Hague ordering the company to stop providing services that could be used for illegal streaming or face a €1.5 million fine. The technology used to facilitate illegal streaming has also come under the spotlight, and in particular the popular set-top media player, Kodi, which, though entirely legal itself, is often used for illegal streaming via a series of third-party add-ons, something John Whittingale, former UK Culture Secretary has blasted as being “tantamount to theft”.

But while the ECJ may have found unlicensed streaming to be illegal, just declaring that something is outside the law achieves little. Shutting down sites one-by-one has so far proven to be a game of whack-a-mole. The Pirate Bay, for example, has been going strong since 2003 – even if its founders have had to service a little jail time – by changing jurisdictions, URLs and enabling access through proxy (or mirror) websites.

And it’s not difficult to understand the owners’ incentive for staying one step ahead of the law. In the 2009 trial, the police estimated that the Pirate Bay made $1.4m per year through advertising. Where there’s money to be made, there will always be people ready to make a profit – legal or not – meaning current policy of trying to shut down individual providers is like taking down individual dealers to end the war on drugs. It just won’t work.

So rather than trying to tackle supply, perhaps it is time to address demand. Draconian strategies designed to terrify consumers into staying away from streaming sites – such as the UK’s new Digital Economy Act – do not appear to be having the desired result. However, disincentivizing illegal streaming in more behaviour-led ways might.

One strategy, for example, could be to emphasis the risk of malware infection by the use of illegal streaming sites. According to a joint study by KU Leuven University and Stony Brook University, half of the ads hosted on illegal sports streaming sites are malicious. Another way of tackling the issue could be for sports and entertainment industries to give the people what they want so that they don’t have to resort to illegal streaming by, for example, reducing the lag time between theatrical release of movies and their transfer to video-on-demand services and making it easier to access the content you want, legally.

But perhaps the best way of cracking down on illegal streaming would be by strangling the revenue streams that these sites rely on to finance their operations. The Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG), a collective of major companies involved in the media and advertising industry working against illegal streaming, have come together to ensure that legitimate businesses don’t support streaming through advertising. According to a study by Ernst & Young LLP, TAG’s anti-piracy steps have already reduced ad revenue for pirate sites by between 48% and 61%.

Even the smallest efforts can help: a few months back, we discovered that Unibet, the main brand of the Swedish gambling, online poker, horse-racing and sports betting company Kindred Group, was financing several illegal streaming sites (such as WatchSportOnline.cc, LiveSportStreams.net and MyFeed4U.net) through targeted advertising. According to the source code, the ads seemed to have been placed directly by Kindred, with no other advertising agency acting as the middleman. Contacted by EU Reporter, a company spokesman said they “had no knowledge” of any wrongdoings and pledged to contact said websites to make sure “any reference to Unibet would be deleted.”

And that was, indeed, the case. After being alerted by EuReporter, the online betting company pulled its ads from the sites mentioned. “We have been in contact with the partners mentioned and requested that all Unibet references are taken off the sites”, and all ads had indeed disappeared from the three websites,” the spokesman said, dealing a critical blow to the illegal streamers.

If policy makers and activists can find a way of starving the sites of this income, they will inevitably fold. Consumers and the businesses that advertise are the two groups that need to be disincentivised from supporting these platforms – anything else is just like a very expensive, and ultimately entirely futile, game of whack-a-mole.




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