In the early 2000s, powerful entertainment industry groups were demanding action to prevent “wholesale theft” of their content online, much of it at the hands of regular customers of the world’s ISPs.
That very little content was available to buy legally online not only helped to fuel the crisis, in this underdeveloped market many ISPs still had just one key product to sell; internet access and the bandwidth it consumed. Broadly speaking, ISPs were concerned by the threats; on balance, however, putting customer interests last wouldn’t have been an ideal strategy in a rapidly growing market.
Epic Battle For The Internet
In 2004, Belgian music rights group SABAM made an extraordinary move designed to force ISPs into compliance. Targeting local ISP Scarlet, SABAM sought a declaration that the ISP’s subscribers infringed its members’ rights, demanding that the ISP should be compelled to filter and block all piracy traffic.
For the next seven years, through local courts and the European Court of Justice, Scarlet fought SABAM and the notion that an ISP could be forced to proactively monitor, block and filter to protect SABAM’s members’ rights, but at the expense of internet users’ fundamental rights.
Scarlet’s landmark victory in 2011 remains one of the most important of its kind but in the 13 years that followed, entertainment companies changed and consumption of pirated content changed. While the legal principles underlying Scarlet’s victory did not, attitudes towards acceptable filtering and blocking were on the move.
ISPs Develop Tools to Block IPTV, Can’t Wait to Use Them
In 2008, Scarlet was acquired by telecoms giant Belgacom Group, which later rebranded as Proximus.
Today the Scarlet brand is associated with the cheapest prices available in Belgium but, for owner Proximus, the availability of cheap bandwidth shouldn’t be seen as a green light to consume cheap pirate IPTV services. Indeed, the company not only disapproves of pirate IPTV services, but it’s also eager to play a more active role to ensure that its customers can’t consume them. Right now, only paperwork is holding that back.
“We are just waiting for the legal framework to be able to cut the streams. We don’t have the right to do that today. But we have the capacity,” CEO Guillaume Boutin revealed in a recent interview.
“The cycle between when the link is spotted and when we receive permission to cut it takes too long. Afterwards it abounds in all directions. More links are coming. This procedure is of no use today.”
Boutin says that if he spots an illegal stream, under the current framework he can’t simply decide to block it.
“However, it is critical to be able to stem the phenomenon. Honestly, this IPTV situation is intolerable, for the rights holders, for the distributors, and for Proximus too. This is an enormous evaporation of value for the sector. This is unacceptable.”
Hearing an ISP use language and reasoning typically associated with rightsholders is rare; in some regions, it’s completely unheard of. It suggests that these former rivals not only have much more in common, but may also stand to benefit from common policy in specific areas of business.
Elsewhere in Belgium, another ISP appears to be singing from exactly the same sheet.
CEO of Orange Completely Agrees
Telecoms company Orange Belgium is a Proximus competitor albeit a little more expensive according to online comparisons. Yet in an interview with La Libre (paywall) published early February, comments by CEO Xavier Pichon are so closely aligned with those of Proximus chief Guillaume Boutin, there’s little to set them apart.
“We have the technological means to massively block these streams, and the content publishers who lose money are just asking for that, but for the moment, it is blocked because of administrative and judicial consistency. But that will change,” Pichon said.
“Illegal IPTV seriously threatens the entire economic model of publishers, copyrights and media. Telecommunications companies invest considerable resources in acquiring the rights to content and, at the same time, in the sizing and quality of the network necessary to carry content traffic over the network.
“On the contrary, illegal service providers do not contribute to copyright and threaten the entire economic model of the media,” Orange’s CEO added.
New Law in Place But Awaiting Royal Decree
Both Proximus and Orange say that they’re waiting (impatiently, in the case of the former) for implementation through a royal decree of a draft law published in 2022.
The ISPs believe that the law will authorize the type of immediate blocking needed to properly tackle pirate IPTV providers. Pichon also believes that today’s ‘pirate IPTV’ platforms will eventually find themselves usurped; the term IPTV will live on, though, at least after work to polish its image.
“But let’s remember that IPTV, which is a product of piracy, will be a product of the future,” he said, alluding to success for a legal alternative.
“We will have to ‘unbrand’ the term IPTV.”