Advising Pirates to Use VPNs is “Positive News” Says Piracy Blocking Chief

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Massimiliano Capitanio, head of Italian telecoms regulator AGCOM, believes the country's all-new internet blocking system will deliver a bright future in the fight against pirate IPTV services. After receiving news that pirate operators are making VPN use mandatory for their subscribers, the response from Italy's blocking chief was surprising. "Positive news," Capitanio said.

piracy encryptWhen Italy passed new law on July 14, authorizing widespread internet blocking and harsher punishments for pirates who supply or even consume illegal streams, football clubs and broadcasters breathed a sigh of relief.

Strong proponents of the law believe that Italy’s ‘Piracy Shield‘ blocking system will be a game changer when it arrives. Some appear completely convinced that almost no illegal content will be able to get through.

Others have heaped praise on the introduction of fines up to €5,000 for people who simply buy and/or consume pirate IPTV streams. That’s on the assumption any survive the ‘blocking system‘ set to “solve piracy” once its switched on.

Pirates Tend to Adapt

Those with a more pragmatic approach have likely considered how the internet works and appreciate the inherent limitations of blocking. The practicalities of hitting millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens with €5,000 fines suggests that on the balance of probabilities, that’s unlikely to happen at scale. That being said, a combination of semi-effective blocking and a few strategic high-profile fines could still reduce piracy by a few percentage points, providing nothing goes terribly wrong.

In stark contrast to those who believe blocking is the best long-term solution, hardcore pirates at both the supply and consumption ends of the market will simply declare the new anti-piracy dream dead, before it even starts. Armed with pirate IPTV subscriptions and cheap VPNs costing a couple of euros per month, a subset of Italian pirates already elude existing blocking measures and are highly likely to keep doing so.

Mandatory VPNs For Pirates

While not even AGCOM can do much about circumvention (at least not yet), up until now any decision to use a VPN has been a personal one. In countries where aggressive live blocking is already in place, notably the UK, VPN use is increasing but not necessarily due to personal choice. It’s now common for IPTV-configured set-top devices to arrive with a VPN as part of the deal; they not only defeat blocking but also prevent pirate sellers and support staff from being overwhelmed with blocking-related complaints.

This Thursday, Studio Previti linked to an article from Il Sole 24 Ore. It begins with a quote from a message sent by a pirate service to subscribers which acknowledges the new legal environment and imposes a solution.

“Dear customers, I wanted to inform you that from October 1, the Agcom action will come into effect. Therefore, it is mandatory to use a VPN,” the message reads.

Opportunities and Challenges

The VPN message came up during a technical workshop on Tuesday, organized by local anti-piracy group FAPAV to discuss the new legislation and related opportunities and challenges.

How the message was obtained isn’t made clear, but it was shared with attendees by Massimiliano Capitanio, head of telecoms regulator AGCOM and commander-in-chief of piracy blocking in Italy.

The next day, Capitanio addressed colleagues in a post on LinkedIn which references the ‘mandatory VPN’ message before flipping expectations on their head. Pirates may view VPNs as opportunities for them but with a little creative thinking, Capitanio believes the opposite is true.

“Positive News”

“On Tuesday I participated with great interest in the discussion on #copyright and #piracy promoted by FAPAV – Federation for the Protection of Audiovisual and Multimedia Content Industries together with Studio Previti Associazione Professionale,” Capitanio begins.

“The fact that criminal organizations, which run the piracy business, are inviting their ‘customers’ to hide behind #vpn systems is positive news. First: law 93/2023 hits the mark.”

According to the text, Law 93/2023 (pdf) empowers AGCOM to take “urgent and precautionary measures” to disable access to content distributed illegally. Under orders from AGCOM, ISPs must block DNS resolution of identified domain names and block routing of network traffic to IP addresses “uniquely intended for illicit activities.”

If the same content reappears on any future domain, subdomain, or IP address, no matter who operates them, additional blocking is authorized. In respect of live sports broadcasts (initially only Serie A football matches), preemptive blocking is available under an “abbreviated procedure without cross-examination” based on rightsholder or “trusted flagger” reports.

Pirates Advising Pirates How to Pirate ‘Safely’

How any of this might play out in the real world is left to the imagination but in short, AGCOM believes that VPN use in connection with pirated content damages a suspected pirate’s already limited chances of success as an uninformed ‘innocent’ infringer.

“Second: anyone who uses a VPN is not an unaware user but knows they are committing a crime,” Capitanio continues. “And therefore they risk a fine of up to 5,000 euros. And I have a feeling we’re going to read about some good ones.”

The law passed in the summer lists aspects of copying, distribution, and “making use of tools capable of eluding the technological measures of protection” as offenses punishable by a €5,000 fine. Herein lies the dilemma.

If the new blocking system lives up to the hype, nobody with a standard setup using an Italian ISP should be able to access pirate IPTV services. Changing DNS might work for websites but that’s no use for blocked IP addresses. Other than convoluted workarounds, that leaves VPNs as the most viable option to evade blockades and pirate content; unfortunately that’s still punishable by a €5,000 fine because piracy over a VPN is still piracy.

So, whichever way you cut it, pirates and/or pirating VPN users violate Italian law and the potential consequences include a €5,000 fine. Or rather that would be the case, if the anonymity provided by VPNs wasn’t actually the most important part of the overall technical equation.


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