During the summer of 2017, several of the world’s largest entertainment industry companies teamed up to create a new anti-piracy coalition.
The Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment (ACE) brought together well-known Hollywood companies including Disney, Warner Bros, NBCUniversal, media giants such as Sky and BBC, as well as streaming-based newcomers Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu.
Heading towards its fifth anniversary, the coalition is stronger than ever. ACE continues to expand and now has 35 members, with beIN becoming the latest addition just this week. The addition of the sports rightsholder also represents an expansion into the live streaming arena.
The coalition’s growth is not limited to its member count, the number of people involved in ACE’s anti-piracy operations also continues to grow. The team currently consists of more than 100 full-time professionals speaking 30 languages across 24 countries.
Expansion appears to be paying off. While many pirate site operators manage to avoid ACE’s grasp, those who fail to take extreme precautions have become easy prey.
ACE’s global content protection chief Jan van Voorn informs us that more investigators and attorneys continue to be added to the alliance in various parts of the world. These “boots on the ground” allow access to local governments and law enforcement, to target local piracy players.
ACE Books Progress
Over the years ACE has built a dedicated library of open-source intelligence. This has resulted in a wealth of information that is now paying off at a rapid pace.
“Over the past three years, we have built up a significant pipeline of investigations. These are coming to fruition week by week and month by month. If someone is running a pirate business of any significance, they can be 100% sure that their case is somewhere in our pipeline,” van Voorn says.
These strong words are expected, as ACE wants site operators to feel vulnerable, but they’re not hollow threats. Over the past few months alone the coalition has shut down several prominent piracy players, including Pelisplushd.net, Afdah.video, and Altered Carbon.
And those names are just the tip of the iceberg. Between 2019 and 2021, the number of illegal websites and streaming subscription services operated from North America reportedly dropped from 1,400 to just 200. ACE believes this is in large part the result of its anti-piracy efforts.
Cease and Desist
There are a variety of enforcement actions available to ACE. The coalition takes a holistic approach, searching for vulnerabilities wherever it can. While court cases are also part of the repertoire, a cease-and-desist letter is usually the first step taken.
“Whenever the case at hand allows for it, ACE’s preferred course of action is to serve cease and desist notices on pirate operators and then open discussions to shut down their illegal enterprise voluntarily. The increasing number of pirate services’ domains taken over by ACE is a testament to the effectiveness of such direct action,” van Voorn tells us.
While this sounds easy, finding out who’s behind a pirate site isn’t always straightforward. The operators of these sites and services often go to extremes to hide their identities, using proxies, VPNs, and fake names and addresses.
ACE regularly tries to uncover information through DMCA subpoenas in the U.S. or Right of Information (ROI) claims in the EU. These target intermediaries such as hosting providers and Cloudflare, who are compelled to hand over customer information.
“Disclosure requests have been a very effective way for ACE to expand its investigations. Through these processes we target all relevant intermediaries that have customer information that can help us identify the operator of a pirate site or service, including hosting providers, payment processors, advertising networks, etcetera.”
“Having targeted more than 200 online intermediaries this way, it also allows us to identify patterns of piracy friendly intermediaries across the globe,” van Voorn notes.
Even when intermediaries cooperate, information obtained isn’t always useful. Many operators of pirate sites and services use fabricated or inaccurate details to sign up.
“The information we receive from intermediaries is mixed. While the information obtained does not always instantly identify the individual running a pirate operation, there are almost always leads we can follow that either give us investigative insights or that help confirm prior suspicions.”
In recent years many ACE members have lobbied for stricter “Know Your Business Customer” (KYBC) requirements for online intermediaries. The lack of identity verification is one of the greatest frustrations for ACE at the moment. Making these checks mandatory would be a game-changer.
Van Voorn says that it’s not hard for people to stay anonymous and run a commercial pirate enterprise. Online service providers hardly ever check who their customers really are. And while ACE doesn’t want to limit the privacy of regular Internet users, it believes that pirates are in a different league.
“Private individuals are entitled to their personal privacy, of course. But when you start running a business that is taking people’s money and selling services, you incur certain obligations to tell the world who you are and to obey the law,” van Voorn says.
“What’s illegal offline should be illegal online. Online service providers should be able to respond to legitimate civil judicial and law enforcement requests to identify their customers. If they can’t do that, they are enabling illegal activity, and there should be consequences.”
Identifying people behind pirate sites and services is a priority but when intermediaries can’t or won’t hand over any useful information, ACE will look for other ways to go after the culprits.
“There are many more ways to make the lives of pirate operators unpleasant, make their websites less user-friendly, and significantly impact their bottom line. We can, and we always will, disrupt and ultimately identify pirate operators by pouring more resources into our investigations.”
Civil and Criminal Lawsuits
As ACE is expanding, the cease-and-desist approach has become a more international endeavor. And with employees around the globe, it becomes more difficult for pirate sites and services to stay under the radar.
Cease-and-desist letters can be effective but they are no silver bullet. In some cases, operators of pirate sites and services will continue undeterred. When that happens, ACE will consider taking action in court, or referring the operators to local prosecutors.
“We think of litigation or criminal referrals as the logical next step when discussions with pirate operators are unsuccessful, or when operators try to go back into business despite agreeing not to do so. There are certainly more civil and criminal cases to come in the near future,” van Voorn notes.
At the end of 2020, the United States adopted the ‘Protecting Lawful Streaming Act’ which was seen as a game-changer since it made running an illegal streaming service a felony. Thus far, this hasn’t resulted in a wave of prosecutions.
This isn’t due to a lack of referrals, according to ACE’s global anti-piracy chief.
“Illegal streaming is now a felony in the US, and we are doing our best to help ensure that those criminal offenders will face justice. We know that DOJ is aware of some significant pirate operators in the US, and we trust that they will take appropriate action.”
In recent months ACE has published a steady stream of enforcement successes on its website. While not all achievements can be shared publicly, the alliance sees the shutdown of PrimeWire, Altered Carbon, 123movies.la, Afdah.video, and Pelisplushd.net as some of the biggest successes of the past year.
Looking ahead, van Voorn mentions a few areas where ACE plans to spend more time and effort. This includes enforcement targeted at live streaming, which in part motivated beIN to join the coalition.
ACE already has some experience in going after IPTV services and they have learned that a lot of IPTV sellers rely on a relatively small group of wholesalers. Targeting these big players is a priority.
In addition, the alliance also takes a special interest in release groups at the top of the ‘piracy pyramid’. Last year, ACE shut down the movie and TV show release group NTG and it plans to use the same strategy to go after other key players.
“Another important issue we are dedicating even more time to are release groups, in particular those that focus on ripping content from ACE Members’ streaming services,” van Voorn says.
“Following our success in shutting down the NTG release group last year, we are currently focusing on major release groups following the same strategy and we are working closely with law enforcement on these cases,” he adds.
All in all, ACE is confident that it can severely disrupt the piracy ecosystem. While it’s undeniable that the alliance has booked several major successes, history has shown that the most stubborn pirates are hard to catch. In any case, it will be an interesting battle to watch.