Monday, 23 January 2017

Watching Illegal Content Online

Watching Illegal Content Online

You can watch sport, movies and television programmes illegally online but what is being done about it?

The 2016 UEFA European Championship in France has been watched by millions of people in the UK for free. That's okay, though, because under a deal struck with European football's governing body, the BBC and ITV have the rights to broadcast the games on free-to-air television - so for the four weeks of the tournament, there is no need to subscribe to a premium TV service, or seek out websites for an illegal feed. Come next month, though, many football fans will play a different game. The Premiership and the UEFA Champions League will be aired on subscription television channels, since forking out for Sky Sports and BT Sport could potentially empty the wallets of many a fan, a good number will seek less-than-legal, but free, alternatives.

Ever since the advent of broadband, scores of fans have flocked online to avoid paying to see 22 men boot a ball around a pitch (and all of the petulance, drama and disappointment which comes with it - yes, some of us are still smarting over England's sorry exit). There are dozens, if not hundreds, of sites that stream games live and, much like other piracy sites, when one is shut down another returns using a different domain, It's a little akin to a tense penalty shoot-out between the authorities and the streamers - where we all watch on to see which one misses the net and which one hands victory to the other. Only this game just seems to go on and on and on.

Illegal streaming affects many sports, of course, and not just football. Boxing fans avoid pay-per-view feeds by punching in the URL of a streaming site and watching fights for free online. Others look to grab cheeky streams of cricket, golf and rugby. The problem extends even further and wider, though. Illegal streams - and downloads, come to that - blight the film industry, ruin attempts by television companies to charge for their catalogue of shows and annoy concert promoters by allowing people to watch gigs from the comfort of their chair at home. The issue affects sales of DVDs and Blu-rays and it dents the profits of the legal streaming services. Yet so many people still do it.

Indeed, statistics published by the Intellectual Property Office have shown that one in five of us access content illegally. The situation is worse for the film industry, which sees a quarter of users unlawfully streaming or downloading movies and it's only marginally better for television - 21 %. It also appears that the wider population is getting increasingly used to finding content online. Legal and illegal content consumption online was up 6% last year so, if anything, the problem is only going to intensify - and it is already said to be costing the UK economy somewhere in the region of £1.2 billion each year.

Playing Ball

When it comes to illegal viewing, the stakes are very high. The current Premier League football deal struck by Sky Sports and BT Sport is worth £5.1 billion alone over the next three seasons. So, with more money involved than at any time in the history of televised sport, the powers-that-be are understandably keen to protect their investments.

They want to clamp down on the peer-to-peer networks and the websites which are showing live football matches - something which breaches the copyright held by the Premier League in their broadcast rights. They want to prevent people bypassing pay-per-view events and they want to stop people accessing the expensive multi-million pound TV shows and movies that encourage people to subscribe to premium channels and streaming services. And they'll go to court to stake their case.

Three years ago, Gary Goodger was given a suspended sentence, unpaid work and a £1,750 fine for running a slick streaming operation from his home near Reading. Using a satellite dish, nine decoders and seven computers, he illegally made live Premier League streams available on inexpensive subscriptions that were processed via PayPal by an accomplice called Jack Bannister who lived in Burnley. After an investigation had been launched by the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT), the court case followed a number of 'cease and desist' notices that were ignored.

The following year computers and other equipment, said to have been supporting a great number of illegal streaming sites allowing users access to sporting events from across the world, was seized from a base of operation based in Cheetham Hill, Manchester. However, despite such efforts to stop the streamers, set-ups such as that appear to be proliferating. Thousands of people are streaming sports feeds without permission and they are increasingly based outside the UK.

Across Europe and the wider world - most notably in Australia, New Zealand and the United Arab Emirates - the black market in streaming and downloading visual entertainment is flourishing, and it is also becoming rather more sophisticated and well-manned. This was evident in Spain last year, when the streaming sports index Wiziwig was shut down after pressure from anti-piracy organisations and new laws put the squeeze on the operation, It had been streaming the Premier League live and hosting streams to lots of other events. However, when it was shut down, a dozen former moderators simply moved on and formed another service called Streamhub.

"We came back under a new name," one of them said, defiantly, underlining the extent of the problem. Yet, even before they managed to get back online, other alternative sites had already been flagged by those desperate for their football fix. It would seem that supporters of Wiziwig believed there was no wrongdoing - indeed they put what they were doing in the same bracket as other disruptive companies, from Uber to Spotify. Yet, with each game costing TV companies around £6.6 million, there is much at stake and, if left untackled, it could even threaten the current viability of a Premier League that is now very much reliant on money from television.

"It is only through legitimate investment in our broadcasting rights that we can put on a world renowned football competition, and support and invest in the entire English football pyramid and beyond," a spokesman for the Premier League told us.

"This model is threatened by piracy, whether in the form of illegal internet streams showing Premier League football, or unauthorised broadcasts of our matches in UK pubs. We do a huge amount to combat that threat, including through partnerships with agencies including Net Result, Irdeto and ID Inquiries.

"Our work in this area includes successfully blocking tens of thousands of streams that were illegally showing Premier League footage, and successfully taking legal action against certain websites, both in the English and overseas courts."

Going For Goal

In February, it emerged that Premier League bosses had begun talking to online security companies in the fresh hope of finding ways to crack down on illegal streams. They believe that by preventing users from accessing content available in other regions, they can cut off a good proportion of websites offering unlawful content. To do this, they would employ geofencing, a feature within a program that uses the GPS satellite network, wi-fi nodes and Bluetooth beacons to wrap a virtual boundary around a location.

Whether it will work depends on how much energy people have to fight back - and, given that there are a million people determined to watch for free each week in the UK, that's some attack to defend against. Although there are some cheaper ways of gaining access to some football - Now TV has day passes, for instance, and there are clips available through The Sun and The Times - the problem is that once someone has gotten used to obtaining something for nothing, it is hard to get them to move to a payment system. Besides, a lot of fans will argue that they are trying to gain access to games they simply can't find televised at home: games that kick off at 3pm on a Saturday are a case in point. In that case, it's an issue of availability.

Although 49% of respondents to a survey by the IPO (Intellectual Property Office) said they watched unlawfully because it was free, and another 43% said they did so because it was convenient. It goes without saying that if you can't readily get hold of some content and you are desperate to see it, then you may take desperate measures.

In the case of football, there is a valid reason for not showing games in the 3pm Saturday time slot in the UK: the idea is that it encourages supporters to leave their armchair and go and see some live football in a stadium. Certainly, the Football League is keen to protect the numbers of supporters who go to watch Championship, League One and League Two football, where most games continue to be played in English football's most traditional time slot.

However, when the clock comes round to that traditional kick-off time, the number of people looking to stream football hits its peak. The Premier League could insist on allowing every game to be broadcast live on television to counter this - the IPO survey claims 21% would stop infringing content if everything was available legally - but that is not going to be on the cards for at least three more seasons.

Geographical Restrictions

Football, though, is not the only industry with restrictions. Netflix, Amazon, YouTube and the BBC iPlayer have become the most dominant and popular lawful streaming services online today but they come with their own boundaries. With Netflix, customers in the UK can only access content that is available in this country but, as many will know, there are many shows available on the American service that are appealing. There have been various attempts to get around that - using unblocking tools, VPNs and proxies - but Netflix took steps to close the loopholes, barring viewers from seeing scores of licensed films and television shows.

"We have a way to go before we can offer people the same films and TV series everywhere," Netflix VP David Fullagar said in a blog post. And yet the difference between the two services is huge as it stands. The latest figures show that the US Netflix has 6,389 movies and shows while in the UK there are 3,701. To watch the programmes that are not available here, some people may well be tempted to scour the web instead. The same goes for accessing shows such as Game Of Thrones without a Sky Atlantic subscription, or a programme that was aired on the BBC and can't be found officially.

There is no doubt that those who insist on watching for free can be said to have a sense of entitlement-the feeling that if we can't get what they want, they'll find it anyway and get it for free. Whatever their motivation, it's illegal; it's also a very profitable business for many. Paul Mahoney from Carnhill in Derry Northern Ireland, made close to £300,000 through adverts placed on illegal websites that offered users access to the latest film and television shows. At his peak, he was making more than 12,000 films available to his customers for free, and many of those were showing at the same time - or before - they were on at the cinema.

This kind of high-speed internet piracy has taken over from the 'hard-goods' equivalent, which so worried the movie and television industry in days gone by. People tend not to snap up dodgy DVDs from a car boot sale or the pub any more, just as they don't nip down to the local Blockbuster - both are ideas from a bygone age. Downloads and streams are far more convenient, yet equally unlawful. As before, though, the people who tend to be fined or prosecuted are those provided the 'service' - nobody in the UK has yet been hauled before the court for illegally streaming content.

That's because, according to FACT, the strategy is not to prosecute those who are streaming at home. Instead, those thought to be downloading and streaming illegally are identified by ISPs and sent letters threatening to cut them off if they continue. The main target is the supply. "Our interest lies in identifying, disrupting and if necessary prosecuting the individuals who defraud the creative industries by knowingly stealing content - and who then make that content available through illegitimate means for their own financial benefit or kudos," it has said. Broadband providers have also been taking action to cut off sites they suspect of providing illegal content.

Watching The Pirates

A few companies have also sprung up to help monitor online activity for anything unlawful. Mark Monitor is one of them and it has been helping, among others, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) to spot any online videos of matches. Lots of streaming sites have been taken down as a result, but there has been controversy within the wrestling world over attitudes towards streaming and downloading. One wrestler actually asked Twitter for a link to an illegal stream of a UFC pay-per-view match, for example.

The City of London Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit (PIPCU) has also been set up in recent years with £2.56m funding from the IPO. Running until next year, it has been successful in disrupting and preventing websites from providing unauthorised access to copyrighted content. With FACT among its partners, it has been encouraging the creative industries to identify and report copyright-infringing websites. These are then listed on an Infringing Website List and shared among the creative industries. The idea is that word gets around that these sites are dodgy so that advertisers, agencies and intermediaries stop advertising on them. Pulling the plug on their cash source is seen as the way forward.

Even so, it is still a tricky area to police. Whereas pre-recorded footage and files ready for download can be easily identified by the files that need to be stored, streaming something live is transient. There is less of a trace and with the rise of smartphone apps that allow for live streaming this is becoming more of an issue. So prosecutions for downloading and streaming films and television programmes are more likely than for those who are showing live events such as football matches.

It's also hard to prosecute under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 because it could - and it has been - successfully argued that the images being beamed are not intellectual creations. The US Digital Millennium Copyright Act, on the other hand, can see companies and individuals calling for content to be removed.

Yet it's all very grey, much to the frustration of those who are trying to stamp out downloading and streaming that is being carried out without permission. A lot depends on what is dotted around the website - FACT says illegal streaming sites can use trademarks and cover art and so sites can be targeted for that reason. Perhaps more worrying is that they can also look so professional that it can be difficult for a visitor to know whether they are legal or not. The danger here is that there are some hidden 'extras' lurking beneath the shiny veneer but even if there isn't, it can still be very damaging.

Ultimately, anyone using an illegal streaming website has to consider what they are doing to the various industries. While a lot of people may not have too much sympathy with the Premier League given the cash numbers that are being thrown around, there could still be an adverse effect on the clubs which benefit from the money, although you'd hope there have been some lessons learned from the ITV Digital debacle of 2001. Back then, the ITV Sports Channel showed the purchased TV rights to the Football League, but when the whole venture collapsed the £315m deal evaporated, severely affecting the budgets of many clubs. It shows how reliant on television clubs are.

In terms of the movie and television industry, though, the impact can be felt beyond the £500 million said to be lost each year due to copyright theft. Less money means fewer resources for the films and programming we love the most which ultimately reduces the overall pleasure of the entertainment industry. Yet while subscription-based services such as Netflix and Amazon are allowing millions of people access to vast amounts of content for a set price each month, there appears to be no happy ending in sight for some industries.

It hasn't helped that football, for instance, is split across two stations which means anyone looking to watch the entire run of the Premier League, FA Cup, Football League Cup, Champions League and Europa League has to take out two subscriptions. It doesn't help either that films at the cinema are not streamed legally within a far shorter time frame or that some shows - such as the brilliant Detectorists - can have one season on Netflix without any extra charge, and the second on Amazon at £1.89 an episode.

What that shows is that there has to be a fresh overall look at how content is made available in the future and a concerted effort for global rights. Only then can we hope to see the final whistle blown.

Where Can I Get Legal Streams?

There are many legal websites offering streams and downloads of television shows and films, and there are also resources that you can use to point you in the right direction when you're looking for something specific.

If you want to be protected from any potential legal trouble, then it is worth heading over to The site lists genuine websites that offer television, film and sport.

The site is easy enough to use. You simply select the type of content that you want - it also lists games, magazine, ebook and music sites - and then decide the kind of service you are after.

For example, if you want a movie you can select a service that will let you buy and keep it, or opt for something subscription based. It will show you the various hubs available from the BBC iPlayer and UKTV Play to Netflix and Picturebox.

For those wanting to search for a specific film, head to By inputting the name of a movie, you are able to discover whether its available on a streaming service or to buy.

However, both it and a similar service called WhereToWatch, which was set up by the Motion Picture Association of America, recently - sadly - dropped Netflix from their lists because the streaming service retired its API.

Account Sharing

There is a grey area surrounding the sharing of passwords for accounts; something that allows various users can gain access to a service even though only one person is paying for it. Most legal streaming services allow their films, programme and sports to be beamed on more than one device and, while they tend to cap it at a certain number, don't stop someone in more than one house from sharing an account.

A report in Variety last year said that the practice could be costing video-on-demand companies more than £500 million. For that reason, some providers offer family plans so they can at make some extra cash but, while excessive sharing does typically violate the terms and conditions of an agreement, the lack of a firm disincentive doesn't put people off.

We were surprised when, for example, Sky allowed people to stream Sky Sports through a games console which suddenly made it possible for people to hook into someone else's account (with their permission) and enjoy top sporting events for free.

Nowadays it charges an extra £5 a month for Sky Go Extra, which allows shows on up to four compatible mobile devices and one console. That's still offering a surprisingly inexpensive way for some people to share the benefits of a single subscription, though.

Why Live Streaming Can Be Dangerous

Aside from the moral issue of illegal streaming, users need to be aware that taking a live feed can actually introduce malicious software on your computer. A study by researchers at Stony Brook University said little is known about the people who initiate the feeds and maintain the websites that link to them and that is putting people in danger.

It identified 5,685 free live streaming domains and performed 850,000 visits. In the process, it analysed a terabyte of traffic. The findings were an eye-opener. Since the sites find it difficult to encourage legal advertisers, they are increasingly funded by malicious ads. On half of the sites studied, those adverts were planting malicious software on to computers.

Add to that the number of streaming sites that insist on a browser-plug in which can infect any website being visited and it becomes clear that live streaming can be a precarious business - for the user. "On the one hand, our analysis reveals that users of free live-streaming websites are generally exposed to deceptive advertisements, malware, malicious browser extensions, and fraudulent scams," the report said.

"On the other hand, we find that free live-streaming parties are often reported for copyright violations and host their infrastructure predominantly in Europe and Belize." The study looked at both the sites that directly serve up the streams and the aggregators that link to them.