Movie Industry: VPNs and Tor Pose a Threat to Legitimate Streaming Platforms

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The Motion Picture Association says that circumvention services such as VPNs, DNS masks and Tor networks can pose a direct threat to legitimate streaming services. In comments submitted to the US Trade Representative, the movie industry group highlights various other piracy challenges around the globe.

pirate-flagThe Motion Picture Association (MPA) represents several of the largest movie industry companies.

Traditionally its members were restricted to top Hollywood studios such as Disney and Warner Bros, but last year streaming giant Netflix joined as well.

The newcomer hasn’t changed the MPA’s main goal, which is to deter piracy around the globe. The group tackles copyright infringement directly by going after site owners and app developers, but it’s also heavily involved in lobbying efforts.

Foreign Trade Barriers

This week the MPA sent an overview of global copyright-related challenges to the US Trade Representative (USTR). The submission was sent in response to a request for comments in preparation for the Government’s yearly report on foreign trade barriers.

The 85-page document provides a detailed overview of several major US trading partners. The US Government can use this as input for international discussions, hoping to improve the situation for US film companies.

While many of the concerns and complaints are not new, there are a few that stand out, starting with the MPA’s concern about ‘circumvention services’ such as VPNs and the Tor Network, which can be used by ‘geolocation pirates’.

Problematic VPN and Tor Use

Whether the term piracy is appropriate here is up for debate, as the targeted users pay for legitimate streaming services. However, they can use tools such as VPNs to access them in locations where the platforms and content are not licensed.

For example, if Netflix is not available in country X, people could use a VPN to make it appear they come from country Y, where the service is legally available. This is a problem, MPA notes, particularly in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

“Circumvention services, such as VPNs, DNS masks or Tor networks, are widely available in the UAE and are used to access and stream content from Internet-based TV and Video-On-Demand services that legitimately operate in different territories, but have not been licensed for the UAE.

“This poses a direct threat to legitimate platforms which are currently offering the same content in the UAE,” MPA adds.

The submission doesn’t state why this is a particular concern in the UAE, where Netflix is legally available. Nor does it mention which services are accessed without permission there.

What stands out most is that the MPA brands these content-neutral tools as ‘circumvention services,’ which is a negative term in copyright circles. Also, the submission suggests that it’s a problem that these services are available, but what would the solution be? Banning VPNs and Tor would be excessive, as these have plenty of legitimate uses too.

Pirate Bay Problems

Besides the VPN and Tor problem, the MPA’s submission highlights more traditional piracy challenges as well. The Pirate Bay is mentioned a few times, for example, to highlight that German domain registrars are not as cooperative as the anti-piracy group would like.

“Several German domain name registrars remain uncooperative, and as such, create a safe haven for internet access through notoriously rogue domain names, such as The Pirate Bay domain names,” the group writes.

“Even when domains are disconnected by registrars, they fail to ‘freeze’ the domain, thus enabling the infringers to transfer the domain to a new registrar and continue the illicit activities.”

The Pirate Bay is also highlighted in relation to Sweden. Despite the criminal convictions of several of the site’s founders, the notorious torrent site remains available.

According to the MPA, Sweden must update its copyright law to properly tackle these and other piracy challenges.

“Swedish law must also change in order to curb organized commercial piracy, as evidenced by the difficulties thwarting The Pirate Bay – an operation the court system has already deemed illegal.

“These necessary changes should include better tools for the police and aim to stop illegal sites that keep running after being raided by the police, and even after being convicted by a court of law,” the MPA notes.

Scene Raids and P2P Groups

The MPA also mentions the recent Scene raids, which were partially linked to Sweden. Several topsites were taken down and the movie industry is keeping an eye on the situation to make sure that they don’t come back.

“The Scene was substantially disrupted in August 2020 via a global action. However, the opportunity for new groups to take their place remains, and the MPA continues to monitor the landscape to confirm that the group does not resurface,” MPA writes.

In the Western Hemisphere, there are plenty of piracy concerns as well. Here, the MPA highlights more activity among P2P release groups, which operate more openly than those from The Scene.

“Internet release groups have been identified in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Peru. These groups are overtly profit driven and utilize different distribution channels to release illicit content.

“Rather than closely-held topsites, some of these groups operate public websites and work at the P2P level,” the MPA adds, noting that these groups also recruit operatives in Russia and the United States.

Positive Notes

The above are just a few of the topics that were highlighted in the MPA’s submission. While the group mostly focuses on shortcomings, it also signals some positive developments here and there.

The MPA is most positive about Australia, which “developed excellent tools to fight online piracy” including pirate site blocking. The movie industry group says it will provide more guidance to the Australian Government to improve even further.

A copy of the MPA’s comments regarding the 2021 National Trade Estimate Report on Foreign Trade Barriers is available here (pdf)

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