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19 September 2019

Noose tightens around Saudi Arabia over industrial-scale beoutQ

The industrial scale of sports piracy conducted by the Middle Eastern operation beoutQ has been known about for some time but now the technical details have been nailed down in a comprehensive 158-page report from MarkMonitor, a provider of anti-piracy technology, commissioned by FIFA, the world’s governing association football body, along with various leagues.

Although the report is technical rather than political, Saudi Arabia emerges clearly as complicit in allowing the piracy to go on since it confirms that satellite platform Arabsat, hosted in the country, has transmitted beoutQ’s pirate broadcasts. The report’s publication coincided with a joint statement from FIFA, the AFC, UEFA, the Bundesliga, LaLiga, Lega Serie A, LFP and the English Premier League (EPL) calling on Arabsat to cease carrying these infringing channels. Arabsat has provided the infrastructure for the illegal beoutQ broadcasts, according to the report, causing the greatest damage to Qatar’s beIN Sports, for which piracy in the Middle East has lost it an estimated $1 billion in revenues.

As the report, entitled simply beoutQ investigation, made clear, this dwarfs the scale of any other video piracy operation to date, in large part because it has received the implicit help of a significant country, admittedly as part of the fall-out from a quarrel with neighboring Qatar where beIN Sports is based.

The timing of the report’s publication was ironical in coinciding with the drone attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil refineries which the country rightly argued were an assault on the global economy. Yet Saudi Arabia itself stands accused of allowing its dispute with Qatar to escalate to the point it allows the beoutQ piracy to become one of the greatest threats to the future of the sports and even entertainment industry, in the words of its accusers.

This may be overstating it slightly and the timing, coupled with the fact that beoutQ has made powerful enemies, especially in the world of football, beyond beIN Sports, suggests that Saudi Arabia will now come under intense pressure to curtail this operation. The dispute with Qatar has become eclipsed by the wider regional and geopolitical concerns for the country with the result that beoutQ is now likely to be sacrificed in such a way as to minimize loss of face.

Even before the report, the noose was tightening around Arabsat in the wake of flagrant abuse, coming to a head recently when a French court ruled it was complicit in distributing every single match of the 2019 Women’s World Cup and ignoring “literally hundreds” of takedown requests.

The report points out that beoutQ’s coverage has not been confined to Saudi Arabia but extends to the whole Middle East region. Anyone can buy a decoder, which receives the signal via the internet as well as Arabsat.

The report also highlights the sophistication of the operation, which greatly exceeds almost all other piracy services, which again points the finger at Arabsat. It highlighted elaborate geofencing and virtual network technology designed to ensure that the service was ubiquitously available in Saudi Arabia and surrounding countries, while being denied to areas where it could not derive revenue, in other words protecting itself against piracy.

The report pointed out that beoutQ is distributed OTT, confusingly referred to as IPTV, as well as satellite, when it requires the beoutQ app and its set top, providing access to third party applications as well as its “own” pirated streamed content. One of these third parties was EDVTV which again is based in Saudi Arabia, so that is another piece of condemning evidence.

The report dissected the beoutQ set top and found that it was a DreamMax B9S2X Android box whose circuit board was assembled in China while one of the chips was made in south Korea, coming with all the in-built components needed for users to set up immediately.

The associated app store, which was included in the beoutQ set top firmware, contains 25 third party streaming and OTT applications downloadable directly from the beoutQ app store. A key point here is that while these were third party apps whose developers played no part in the piracy, beoutQ had set them up as alternative ways of accessing illicitly obtained content. Apart from EVDTV, two other OTT service apps were found to be providing unauthorized streams of sports content, IUDTV and RED IPTV.

Although making no recommendations, the document provides all the evidence required over the mechanisms and technologies deployed by beoutQ for this piracy, with no doubt left over the role played by Arabsat as well as those apps. This comes at a time when the specter of piracy is looming larger over sports rights negotiations in general. The ability of bidders to combat piracy is becoming a significant determinant of rights as much as the money on the table and the beoutQ case, even if resolved, will leave leagues and sporting bodies wary of the Middle East in particular given that many of them have indirectly lost revenues there as a result of this case.