Once upon a time, Internet users’ voices would be heard in limited circles, on platforms such as Usenet or other niche platforms.
Then, with the rise of forum platforms such as phpBB in 2000 and Invision Power Board in 2002, thriving communities could gather in public to discuss endless specialist topics, including file-sharing of course.
When dedicated piracy forums began to gain traction, it was pretty much a free-for-all. People discussed obtaining free content absolutely openly. Nothing was taboo and no one considered that there would be any repercussions. As such, moderation was limited to keeping troublemakers in check.
As the years progressed and lawsuits against both sites and services became more commonplace, most sites that weren’t actually serving illegal content began to consider their positions. Run by hobbyists, most didn’t want the hassle of a multi-million dollar lawsuit, so links to pirate content began to diminish and the more overt piracy tutorials began to disappear underground.
Those that remained in plain sight became much more considered. Tutorials on how to pirate specific Hollywood blockbusters were no longer needed, a plain general tutorial would suffice. And, as communities matured and took time to understand the implications of their actions, those without political motivations realized that drawing attention to potential criminality was neither required nor necessary.
Then YouTube and social media happened and almost overnight, no one was in charge and anyone could say whatever they liked.
In this new reality, there were no irritating moderator-type figures removing links to this and that, and nobody warning people against breaking rules that suddenly didn’t exist anymore. In essence, previously tight-knit and street-wise file-sharing and piracy communities not only became fragmented, but also chaotic.
This meant that anyone could become a leader and in some cases, this was the utopia that many had hoped for. Not only couldn’t the record labels or Hollywood tell people what to do anymore, discussion site operators couldn’t either. For those who didn’t abuse the power and for those who knew no better, this was a much-needed breath of fresh air. But, like all good things, it was unlikely to last forever.
Where most file-sharing of yesterday was carried out by hobbyist enthusiasts, many of today’s pirates are far more casual. They’re just as thirsty for content, but they don’t want to spend hours hunting for it. They want it all on a plate, at the flick of a switch, delivered to their TV with a minimum of hassle.
With online discussions increasingly seen as laborious and old-fashioned, many mainstream pirates have turned to easy-to-consume videos. In support of their Kodi media player habits, YouTube has become the educational platform of choice for millions.
As a result, there is now a long line of self-declared Kodi piracy specialists scooping up millions of views on YouTube. Their videos – which in many cases are thinly veiled advertisements for third party addons, Kodi ‘builds’, illegal IPTV services, and obscure Android APKs – are now the main way for a new generation to obtain direct advice on pirating.
Many of the videos are incredibly blatant, like the past 15 years of litigation never happened. All the lessons learned by the phpBB board operators of yesteryear, of how to achieve their goals of sharing information without getting shut down, have been long forgotten. In their place, a barrage of daily videos designed to generate clicks and affiliate revenue, no matter what the cost, no matter what the risk.
It’s pretty clear that these videos are at least partly responsible for the phenomenal uptick in Kodi and Android-based piracy over the past few years. In that respect, many lovers of free content will be eternally grateful for the service they’ve provided. But like many piracy movements over the years, people shouldn’t get too attached to them, at least in their current form.
Thanks to the devil-may-care approach of many influential YouTubers, it won’t be long before a whole new set of moderators begin flexing their muscles. While your average phpBB moderator could be reasoned with in order to get a second chance, a determined and largely faceless YouTube will eject offenders without so much as a clear explanation.
When this happens (and it’s only a question of time given the growing blatancy of many tutorials) YouTubers will not only lose their voices but their revenue streams too. While YouTube’s partner programs bring in some welcome cash, the profitable affiliate schemes touted on these channels for external products will also be under threat.
Perhaps the most surprising thing in this drama-waiting-to-happen is that many of the most popular YouTubers can hardly be considered young and naive. While some are of more tender years, most – with their undoubted skill, knowledge and work ethic – should know better for their 30 or 40 years on this planet. Yet not only do they make their names public, they feature their faces heavily in their videos too.
Still, it’s likely that it will take some big YouTube accounts to fall before YouTubers respond by shaving the sharp edges off their blatant promotion of illegal activity. And there’s little doubt that those advertising products (which is most of them) will have to do so sooner rather than later.
Just this week, YouTube made it clear that it won’t tolerate people making money from the promotion of illegal activities.
“YouTube creators may include paid endorsements as part of their content only if the product or service they are endorsing complies with our advertising policies,” YouTube told the BBC.
“We will be working with creators going forward so they better understand that in video promotions [they] must not promote dishonest activity.”
That being said, like many other players in the piracy and file-sharing space over the past 18 years, YouTubers will eventually begin to learn that not only can the smart survive, they can flourish too.
Sure, there will be people out there who’ll protest that free speech allows citizens to express themselves in a manner of their choosing. But try PM’ing that to YouTube in response to a strike, and see how that fares.
When they say you’re done, the road back is a long one.