At least on the surface, the story of Sdarot, Israel’s most popular pirate site, sounds quite similar to that of The Pirate Bay. Loved by millions and loathed by entertainment companies, both have demonstrated an unusual ability to remain online, despite overwhelming odds.
But while The Pirate Bay has generated considerable revenue over the years, Sdarot’s existence and its ability to generate profit seem inexorably intertwined. The subscription fees, paid by some (but not all) of its users in return for access to Israel’s top premium TV channels, are the main attraction. They’re also the reason the people behind Sdarot’s are among the most hounded pirate site operators on the planet.
Legal Action in the United States
With legal victories and blocking injunctions proving all but useless in Israel, companies including United King Film Distribution, DBS Satellite Services, and Hot Communication, filed three copyright infringement lawsuits in New York, with Sdarot one of the main targets. The companies requested an award for damages and then received one worth $23 million, not bad all things considered.
A decision by the entertainment companies to go hard with their injunction demands, including that every ISP in the United States should be forced to block Sdarot’s domains, was outrageously ambitious yet somehow received approval from the court in 2022.
What followed was an ill-thought-through attack on Cloudflare and universal disapproval from Big Tech. That led to the blocking demands being withdrawn and a mostly secret process to degrade Sdarot’s ability to conduct business online.
Sdarot Remains in Business; But For How Long?
Reports emerging over the past few days indicate that in addition to legal problems in the United States, Sdarot now faces a new lawsuit in Israel. Following an investigation by Zira, an anti-piracy group that has hounded Sdarot for years, a lawsuit was filed at the Tel Aviv District Court against 14 people alleged to be involved in the operation of the pirate TV show platform.
According to Israeli news outlet Walla, the letter of claim describes a “well-oiled criminal system” that illegally records and distributes copyrighted content, and then launders the revenue, hiding it from tax authorities. Those behind the platform are also accused of exploiting minors, an allegation we’ll return to in a moment.
Zira reportedly engaged an unnamed European cybersecurity company to “follow the money” or, more accurately, cryptocurrency wallets used to receive payments from users before forwarding to other wallets. As published by Walla, the document below appears to be part of the evidence package and claims to show a BTC wallet with an extremely healthy balance.
In common with the investigation that eventually took down Megaupload, Zira appears to have avoided discrimination based on the type or scale of alleged offending at Sdarot. From the top of the site to the very bottom, anyone involved seems eligible.
Owner Through to Facebook Moderator
The alleged owner of Sdarot (TV shows) and sister site Sratim (movies) is named in the lawsuit as Michael Ben-Ami, a former resident of Dimona who no longer lives in Israel. Seeing Ben-Ami’s name in print after years in the shadows provokes a trip down memory lane.
When local TV companies were trying to shut down and/or block Sdarot in 2013, the name of the site’s operator was initially unknown. After subsequently identifying Ben-Ami as the main suspect, police raided his home looking for evidence. Reports at the time claimed that officers were confronted by Ben-Ami’s then-wife/partner who pulled out a knife and turned a ‘normal’ police drama into a potential crisis.
As far as we know, no one was injured, which left Ben-Ami – a former police officer – to deny all involvement in the site.
The lawsuit goes on to name Ephraim Fishel Shtroch as a central figure in the streaming operation. The resident of Beit Shemesh stands accused of developing the site’s mobile and smart TV applications. Also among the accused is Ashdod resident Aviel Twito, who reportedly provided hosting services for Sdarot in Israel, plus Ariel Eisental and Bar Lubinger, who stand vaguely accused of helping the site to make pirated content available.
The list concludes with those who helped to run the site, such as Shaul Amedi and Daniel Levy, and those who moderated social media channels; Shoval Reshef and Lipez Nossen (Discord), David Shemesh (Telegram), plus Alik Abramson and Yuval Abramzon (Facebook). Idan Yuval stands accused of designing Sdarot’s website while Yarin Shimoni is said to have provided voice-overs for content released on the platform.
Commenting on the lawsuit, CEO of Zira Ido Natan said an important step had been taken against widespread copyright infringement in Israel. According to the person behind Sdarot’s Twitter account, Zira’s more recent steps against infringement have been going on for quite some time.
No Love Lost Between Sdarot and Zira
After celebrating Sdarot’s 1,000,000th member on June 16, early July the person controlling the Twitter account spoke of experiencing “somewhat significant technical malfunctions” due to Zira’s activities against the site. That turned out to be the seizure of Sdarot’s server in Israel which in turn solicited a response from Sdarot containing a threat against someone allegedly involved.
On July 12, alarm bells rang more urgently at Sdarot HQ, wherever that might be.
“The site is under attack on several different fronts at the same time now, in at least four different countries! The site is currently only active for subscribers until we return to full normality in a few days,” an announcement declared.
What followed were public allegations against Zira CEO, Ido Natan. The tweet in question claims that Natan previously worked as the Minister of Justice’s personal assistant and then suddenly became CEO of Zira.
A day later Eli Cohen, the pseudonym used by the owner of Sdarot, offered to close down the site if certain conditions were met.
With memes quickly descending into more personal insults, Sdarot acknowledged the existence of the Zira lawsuit on August 2 and also appeared to shine light on allegations that the site “exploited minors.”
“I heard that Zira reached the bottom of the ladder. They decided to sue 14 people, some of whom live in Israel. Some of them are minors, all because they claim to have been part of the site’s team about a decade ago,” the tweet reads, adding: “You increased our motivation to continue.”
This week Sdarot announced two things: 1) the operation to shut the site down (Operation: Sunstroke) had come to an end. 2) On September 7, 2023, Sdarot is expected to make a full comeback.