The music industry obtained a pioneering injunction to compel Danish ISPs to implement site-blocking measures back in 2006.
The goal was to limit access to unlicensed Russian music download platform AllofMP3, but the action also represented the thin end of a site-blocking wedge still being tapped in today.
Broadcaster and site-blocking proponent Canal+ believes that when service providers implement technical measures to prevent access to pirate sites, that helps to reduce piracy rates. Unfortunately, online roadblocks reliant on technical tweaks always run up against other technical tweaks designed to circumvent them.
Protecting Live Sports
A report from the French news outlet l’Informé outlines a fairly typical framework adopted by rightsholders in Europe. To limit access to pirated live sports streams, this year Canal+ went to court in France arguing that local ISPs should prevent customers from accessing several pirate streaming sites.
Through Footybite.co, Streamcheck.link, SportBay.sx, TVFutbol.info, and Catchystream.com, internet users were able to watch Premier League and Champions League football, plus matches from the Top 14 rugby union club competition, without paying Canal+, the local rightsholder.
After the decisions went in favor of Canal+, ISPs including Orange, SFR, OutreMer Télécom, Free, and Bouygues Télécom, were required to implement blocking measures. This meant that when the ISPs’ customers attempted to visit any of the above domains, the ISPs’ respective DNS resolvers provided non-authentic responses, thereby denying customers access to the sites.
Circumvention and New Legal Action
The response to ISP blocking by increasingly savvy customers was to change their network settings to replace their ISPs’ DNS servers with those offered by unaffected third-party providers. By switching to DNS servers offered by Cloudflare, Google, and Cisco (OpenDNS), the domains functioned as expected. This entirely predictable response is now being countered by another.
After tapping in the wedge just far enough to obtain the initial blocking orders, Canal+ has now returned to court hoping to resolve the blocking orders’ shortcomings. After failing to achieve voluntary cooperation, l’Informé reports (paywall) that Canal+ is now suing Cloudflare, Google, and Cisco at the Paris judicial court, to compel similar DNS blocking measures.
Legal Basis: Article L333-10
According to Article L333-10 of the French Sports Code (active Jan 2022), when there are “serious and repeated violations” by an “online public communication service” whose main objective is the unauthorized broadcasting of sporting competitions, rightsholders can go to court to demand “all proportionate measures likely to prevent or put an end to this infringement, against any person likely to contribute to remedying it.”
Proportionate measures include blocking, deleting or deindexing communication services (in this case pirate streaming sites) when they meet the above criteria.
The judicial court may order these measures to be implemented “for each of the days appearing in the official calendar of the competition or sporting event, within the limit of a period of twelve months.” In respect of the competitions Canal+ hopes to protect, that means until May 19, 2024, for the Premier League, until June 1, 2024, for the Champions League, and until June 29, 2024, for Top 14.
How Serious is the Circumvention Situation?
According to detailed reports published by telecoms regulator Arcom, ISP-only DNS blocking measures have enjoyed massive success in France.
Published in May 2023, Arcom’s report for 2022 noted that the overall audience for illicit sports broadcasts decreased by 41% between 2021 and 2022, down from 2.8 million internet users on average to 1.6 million.
On circumvention of blocking measures, in May 2023 Arcom reported that when confronted with a blocked site, almost half of all infringing Internet users (46%) completely abandoned the idea of watching the content.
Of all infringing users, just 6% attempted to circumvent blocking measures using an alternative DNS, VPN or similar method.
While circumvention of blocking measures doesn’t seem to be an especially big problem in France right now, Arcom notes that it will remain vigilant moving forward.
For the sake of curiosity, we searched for signs of blocking in France using data supplied by the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI). The system appears to detect pirate site blocking in France as an ‘anomaly’ (yellow) rather than confirmed, outright blocking (red).
The green sections may indicate that a relatively small number of users are managing to access domains well-known for their links to piracy. Whether that volume warrants dragging third-party DNS providers to court is another matter.
However, it can’t be ruled out that there’s also a strategic element to the Canal+ complaint; another tap of the wedge, more incremental progress, and then ever-expanding DNS blocking in preparation for whatever comes next.