Movie Pirates Sailing on the Corona Stream

The corona virus pandemic makes us rely more on digital communications to work from home, to make our everyday lives work in lockdown and to keep ourselves entertained. This puts a strain on internet capacity. Policy-makers ask internet movie services to reduce bandwidth usage in response. Disney Plus has postponed its launch in France in addition to reducing bitrates. Apple TV has reduced the quality of its streams. The legitimate services take responsibility.

In contrast, the illegal services smell the morning coffee and they don’t care about bandwidth (or any other responsibilities for that matter). Notorious torrent-streamer Popcorn Time launched a new version, even naming it “Love in the Time of Corona”. Can the contrast between solid businesses and parasites be made any clearer? Granted, torrents may be a more bandwidth frugal technology than streaming but that is pure coincidence. There is nothing benign in pirate services. They are for-profit operations with no consideration for the legitimate owners of the content, let alone government concerns about infrastructure integrity nor the security of users in many cases.

These days, it’s not possible to talk about unauthorized video content online without mentioning Youtube. It is a strange beast, because it has loads of perfectly legitimate content. (It also has problems with neo-nazi videos and ISIS propaganda, but let’s leave that for now.) Youtube distributes plenty of unauthorized videos, uploaded by the users. The proportion is impossible to know, but Youtube provides some tools to combat illegal distribution, most famously something called Content-ID which lets the legitimate owner upload a video and the tool then looks for copies on the platform. Youtube says this is ambitious. Rights-owners have the impression Youtube does as little as possible. This writer asks why Youtube so effectively can police porn but not infringing videos. Regardless of your position, the pirates are clever in by-passing Content-ID – putting the video in a frame or mirrored, playing it back a little bit slower or quicker than normal, playing it in reverse (yes, if you have a player that can again reverse it!), removing a few frames here and there and so on. But most people will regard Youtube as a legitimate platform if asked. There is no information whether Youtube will throttle bitrates in order to protect the internet.

If policy-makers are concerned with bandwidth, perhaps now is a good time to also look at the illegal services? And not only because of the bandwidth of course.

It appears that the new Popcorn Time version may not live up to the promises. Many users complain about functionality and prefer the previous iteration. But hey, Love in the Time of Corona is a good name. Have to give them credit for that.

In the end, it may not be movies that are the last straw to break the proverbial bandwidth camel’s back. According to Netopia’s sources in the telecom industry, the network is designed more for download capacity than upload traffic. With all the office workers doing video conferencing from home in order to keep business going, the upload capacity is strained in a way that has never been seen before. Of course this also applies to torrents. Netopia certainly does not want to stop office workers from keeping in touch. But policy-makers would be well advised to turn more stones in their honest effort to keep the digital communication alive in the time of corona.

Transparency: Film industry organisations are among Netopia’s supporters and this writer also advises the film industry on digital matters.