Streaming media boxes—digital media devices that stream music and video to users’ TVs—are unlocking a new wave of online piracy. While many users legally stream online content using devices like Amazon Fire TV Sticks, Chromecasts, and Rokus, there are a growing number of users who buy devices such as the TickBox or Dragon Box to avoid paying for content. Makers of these devices advertise that their products come pre-loaded with software add-ons that will allow users to watch their favorite movies and TV shows without paying for access through legal services such as Netflix and Hulu. Not surprisingly, sales of these “pirate boxes” are taking off—a 2017 study from Sandvine found that roughly 6 percent of North American households were using one to stream unlicensed content.
On March 7, 2018, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) hosted a panel discussion on the challenges associated with piracy from streaming media boxes, its impact on the creative industry, and steps policymakers can take to protect lawful U.S. businesses. ITIF Vice President Daniel Castro moderated the event, and speakers represented various stakeholders and views.
To begin, Neil Fried, senior vice president of federal advocacy and regulatory affairs at the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), emphasized that the creative community has embraced the Internet because it provides so much access to content. However, those who work in the film industry are hurt by these easily accessible illegal streaming sites. To illustrate their accessibility, Fried pulled out a “pirate box” and played several live cable channels and films, including The Devil Wears Prada and Forrest Gump, two movies produced by co-panelist Wendy Finerman, an independent film and television producer.
Finerman felt perturbed by how easily films could be illegally streamed on demand. In particular, she feels that when movies are pirated, many people’s hard work isn’t being acknowledged. She and Fried emphasized that movies are economically beneficial to the areas they are filmed in, but are risky ventures overall, with only 40 percent of movies earning back their initial investment. Therefore, in older to bolster an industry that employs and impacts many, it is imperative that consumers pay for movies in full.
Finerman also noted that movies are meant to move viewers, and it’s financially difficult for studios to make moving films. The more films that are pirated, the harder it becomes to make them.
Tom Galvin, executive director at the Digital Citizens Alliance, spoke on how these illegal streaming sites often hurt consumers. In fact, he has seen negotiations on the Dark Web between pirates and hackers on installation rates in order to infect the most computers. These hackers will steal viewers’ identities, financial information, and personal details. In especially terrible situations, hackers can break into individuals’ web-cams, using them to watch people unknowingly and to blackmail them in the future. In addition, some people can get malware just by visiting the illegal streaming sites, without even downloading the material. Galvin emphasized that these pirate sites do not care about the consumers; rather, there business model is to explicitly hurt consumers for their gain.
Kurtis Minder, CEO at GroupSense, spoke next about how pirate streaming sites pose threats to consumers. As the head of a cyber reconnaissance company, he has seen large weaponized malware being developed and sold. In addition, some of the pirate boxes themselves—not just the websites—are not safe and refuse to take responsibility for those hurt by their products.
Kevin Madigan, assistant director of research and development at the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property, spoke on the cultural attitudes behind piracy today. In his view, the rise of illegal streaming is somewhat tied to the rise of legal streaming services. In fact, he believes that torrent sites and illegal downloading are becoming obsolete in a cloud-based digital streaming environment. In other words, when individuals illegally stream, rather than downloading a movie or television show, they don’t take the decision seriously.
While regulatory action is necessary, all panelists agreed that a cultural shift needs to happen in order to stop piracy. People need to realize that streaming a film online is theft and hurts those who worked on the film—not just the movie stars, but also the lighting technicians, film editors, and other downstream industries. While Madigan feels encouraged that they’re identifying those who develop these applications, he does not think it’s a permanent fix, as more torrent sites and devices are likely to pop up. Ultimately, the issue comes down to educating the public of the implications of illegal streaming and enforcing anti-piracy laws.
Follow the discussion on Twitter using the hashtag #ITIFpiracyboxes.