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27 February 2020

Australian campaign about dangers of stream piracy fall on deaf ears

Creative Content Australia (CCA) has joined a growing list of agencies peddling fear of malware, privacy invasion and credentials theft in an effort to deter consumers from accessing pirated streams, especially of premium live sports. The CCA has publicized findings that consumers visiting pirated sites are more exposed to various cyber threats to coincide with launch of a 30-second anti-piracy ad, ‘Piracy. You’re Exposed’, shown in cinemas, subscription and free-to-air TV networks across Australia.

With 21% of Australians over 18 admitting to accessing pirated content in 2019, the campaign claims that 62% of these have experienced cyber breaches, rising to 75% among under 18s in the same boat. We then have Graham Burke, CCA Chairman, thundering, “If you visit pirate websites, even the law can’t protect you. You are going to a criminally dangerous neighborhood. Pirate sites are big businesses and exist solely to make money by robbing you, or worse. This is an area where your cybersecurity is in danger and malware, blackmail and identity theft are commonplace.”

While of course we applaud such campaigns and wish CCA well with this latest one, we cannot help suspecting it will fall largely on deaf ears. There is an old adage that consumers will change their minds only after changing their behavior, which suggests that other measures rather than gentle intimidation will prove most effective.

One problem is that the cybersecurity industry seems to have become victim to institutionalized depression over the impact of stream piracy and that malaise has infected many rights holders as well. Rather like the fight against illicit class A drugs, the campaign against stream piracy often takes on an air of hang dog desperation, with even successes being hailed merely as evidence of the problem’s scale, the tip of the iceberg attached to a much larger body beneath the surface.

We recall that beIN Media’s CEO Yousef Al-Obaidly recently suggested that global sports rights was a bubble that would soon burst and criticized our research arm Rethink TV for suggesting there was still growth to come in some markets. His pessimism was based entirely on the assumption that piracy was a genie now out of the bottle that could not be contained.

His negativity was understandable given that beIN Media has lost at least $1 billion in revenues to piracy, but that radiated entirely from one rogue operator, beoutQ, sheltered by Saudi Arabia, which as a result has been named and shamed by both the US and European Union, with the former placing the country on a priority watch list for piracy. The European Commission added Saudi Arabia to a list of 13 priority countries ‘causing considerable harm to EU businesses’ due to a failure to take action against piracy and protect intellectual property.

Such actions are likely to have further reaching effects than warnings about malware, given that consumers of pirated streams tend to be slightly more tech savvy than average. They are likely to react to warnings by ensuring they have defenses in place and avoid taking stupid actions like responding to phishing request for credentials. After all, the internet as a whole is a hotbed of malware, not just piracy sites.

At best, anti-malware warnings are a small part of the campaign, which admittedly has to be conducted across multiple fronts. This is because the problem is multifactorial, as the beoutQ case illustrates. The combination of fingerprinting to identify when content in general is being uploaded without permission to sites such as YouTube, network forensics to locate streams that are already being consumed illicitly and finally forensic watermarking to discover the sources of such infringements, has become almost a holy trinity for the field.

Yet it can only combat illicit streaming from sites under direct control of an operator or content provider, or where relationships exist with the relevant parties. It can do nothing to combat pirated streams from a rogue camcorder at a match, or at the other end of the scale a major operation like beoutQ operating semi legitimately with shelter from a sympathetic regime. Then measures have to be taken at the global level right from the top.

There is some evidence though of success, with a report from the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) published in November 2019 reporting that consumption of pirated TV content decreased by 7.7% between 2017 and 2018. That is now slightly historical but suggests that the problem can be contained, even if the losses will continue to be huge, with a great deal of uncertainty over the scale. A recent study from the US Chamber of Commerce’s Global Innovation Policy Center estimates digital piracy costs to US TV and film industry between $29.2 billion and $71 billion annually.

Even the lower-bound is a huge figure that indicates losses could be approaching or even exceeding $100 billion a year globally, confirming that major piracy losses will continue to be built into business models. The fight will continue to be complex but with hope that the industry can do slightly better than just containment.