For the past several years, Chinese-manufactured Ubox IPTV boxes have flooded the market in Taiwan.
With more than 30% of the population using the devices, which grant access to more live streaming content than most people can consume, Taiwan came under pressure from the United States.
Taiwan made amendments to copyright law that outlawed piracy-configured devices. Unsurprisingly, that did little to stop the flow or prevent China-based manufacturer Unblock Tech carrying on regardless.
With Hollywood regularly reporting UnblockTech to the U.S. government as a serious piracy threat, the pressure on Taiwan continued. The tipping point came when public figures in Taiwan caused outrage after watching Olympics streams on the Chinese piracy devices.
With further amendments to copyright law in the pipeline in Taiwan, authorities launced an investigation into the supply of Unblock Tech’s devices in the country.
Several Operations Over Several Months
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics ended in August 2021, and over the next few months, Taiwan authorities conducted several operations to disrupt the supply of Unblock Tech devices. Somewhat unusually, these operations weren’t mentioned in Hollywood’s reports to the U.S. Government.
In a report dated October 2022, in a section dedicated to Taiwan, the MPA describes Unblock Tech in detail, noting that its ‘Ubox’ devices present an “enormous piracy and enforcement” challenge. An IIPA report dated January 2023 goes into detail in other ways but makes no mention of arrests in Taiwan.
A surprise announcement published yesterday by the New Taipei District Prosecutor’s Office reveals that the suspected head of Unblock Tech operations in Taiwan has now been indicted for mass copyright infringement offenses.
Prosecutors say that the man (identified only by the surname ‘Huang’) worked with partners in mainland China to illegally obtain copyrighted movie and TV content (some of it relating to the Olympics) from 72 legal companies, before illegally distributing streams via servers “located overseas” to Ubox device users
So that it could further investigate around 57 websites/IP addresses, Taiwan’s Ministry of Justice sought help from the US Department Of Justice, a logical step according to investigation reports. The network resources supporting mass piracy in Taiwan and encouraging criticism from U.S. rightsholders, had been linked right back to companies in the United States itself.
Operation Clean Band 2
According to documents seen by TorrentFreak, the investigation was launched following complaints from the Satellite Television Broadcasting Association (China) and Japan-based anti-piracy group CODA (Content Overseas Distribution Association). It began in August 2021 and continued until at least December 2021.
Led by Taiwan’s CIB Telecommunications Investigation Corps with support from two criminal investigation units and police departments, raids were carried out in August, September and November 2021 across 26 locations, including Taipei City, New Taipei City, Taoyuan City, Taichung City, Changhua County, Tainan City, and Kinmen County. Overall, 26 locations were targeted.
The indicted suspect identified as ‘Huang’ is in his mid-thirties. He was among 11 others arrested in 2021, including two men of broadly the same age working at the same company.
Seven men and one woman, all aged between 30 and 45, were arrested under suspicion of distribution offenses. Two other men, aged between 25 and 40, were arrested under suspicion of operating servers.
Technical analysis of Ubox devices was guided by Taiwan’s National Communications Commission (NCC) with help from local internet service providers. Copied content was reportedly relayed by servers located in New Taipei City and Changhua, apparently with support from unnamed internet service providers.
Defendant ‘Huang’ is suspected of setting up a company for the purpose of obtaining official WiFi certification from the NCC and then selling the pirate boxes as legal devices in Taiwan. Employees of Huang’s company allegedly signed up to official streaming services so that the content could be copied and restreamed to Ubox devices.
The decision to name the pirate device company Unblocktech Taiwan Co., Ltd hardly suggests an operation in stealth mode. Neither does the registration of an ‘Unblock’ trademark as recently as last April.
Domains: Seized, or Something Else?
As previously mentioned, these events do not feature in recent rightsholder reports to the U.S. government. The only hint can be found in an MPA report to the USTR in 2022 which contains the following statement;
In 2021, the New Taipei District Court ordered a domain registrar outside Taiwan to seize piracy domains related to Unblock Tech through a mutual legal assistance treaty (MLAT) and instructed the local internet administrator (TWNIC) to disable the access of local users to the piracy domains through local ISP networks
The reference above to a “domain registrar outside Taiwan” seems almost intentionally vague. The statement that the New Taipei District Court “ordered” a domain registrar to seize piracy domains isn’t the same as a domain registrar actually seizing domains either.
History isn’t always an accurate predictor of the future, but when domains are seized, it’s unlike the MPA not to tell it how it is. The only domain we could find being celebrated by rightsholders as inaccessible is ub1234.com. The registrar is GoDaddy, and as this image from last year shows, it certainly looks inaccessible.
However, ub1234.com and other key domains used by Unblock Tech seem intact and show no signs of seizure, despite having a registrar or registry in the United States.
Domains Blocked By Taiwan
What actually happened with ub1234.com is that authorities in Taiwan obtained permission from the court to have the domain blocked locally by interfering with the domain’s DNS entries.
Several other Unblock Tech domains also received the same treatment. According to local media reports, these domains were the first to be blocked after Taiwan established a brand new specialist cybercrime department – the Supervisory Center for Investigating and Prosecuting Information and Communications Crimes
The technical aspects of the blocking process make for interesting reading but even if domains had been seized, Unblock Tech appears to have many more domains on standby.
U.S. Department of Justice
The MPA’s report to the USTR mentions Mutual Legal Assistance (MLA) but only in respect of cooperation on domain names.
According to information reviewed by TorrentFreak, Taiwan’s Ministry of Justice sought cooperation from the U.S. Department of Justice because the IP addresses, websites and/or servers identified in the raid (around 57 in total), traced back to two United States companies.
From the information at hand, Cloudflare and FDCServers were asked to hand over the details of the people behind the resources, plus their billing records. Whether they had anything useful to surrender is unclear but since this is a criminal investigation, it’s possible the DoJ may have demanded more than the basics.
Nevertheless, it still presents an awkward image of criticizing Taiwan for not doing enough to combat piracy and then have the crumbs lead right back to home turf. Right now, Unblock Tech’s main domain is fully operational…from a Cloudflare IP address.