After a number of years off the radar, out of vogue, the bogeyman of online piracy is back on billboards and your television screens. Launched in October, BeStreamWise is the latest awareness campaign to deter people from using illegal internet protocol television (IPTV), also known as dodgy boxes, firesticks, and other names, under a pretence of preventing fraud and viruses from “risky” web sites.¹
An evolution of the clunky 2010s Torrent programs such as Vuze and Limewire, these modern IPTV systems, used by 200,000 people in Ireland, have streamlined access to the latest television shows, sports matches and films from around the world—often with a user interface that would put the RTE Player and Sky boxes to shame.
It’s no surprise that the significant driver behind this campaign is Sky itself, with a number of other partners, such as Premier League, the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT), ITV, the British Association for Screen Entertainment (Universal, Disney, Warner etc.), Irish Industry Trust for IP Awareness and Britain’s Intellectual Property Office all getting in on the fearmongering.
The campaign also launched its web site malstreams.com, a bogus IPTV site, to warn people that giving over personal data on line can result in “scams, fraud and even identity theft.”
A number of British studies, commissioned by these media giants, feature on the BeStreamWise site, but requests to view the full studies have been rejected.² They claim that 90 per cent of illegal streaming sites are classified as risky, 32 per cent of people have been victims of fraud, and 2.7 million devices have been infected with viruses—all provided without context.
Types of financial fraud, from “vishing” (phone calls and voice messages) to “romance fraud” (giving money under the pretext of a relationship), have continued to advance and develop smarter scams; and there’s still significant awareness work that needs to be done—particularly for young people, who have been the most common victims of on-line fraud.³
However, studies into how malware-riddled illegal streaming platforms are varies wildly between 30 and 90 per cent, and refrain from noting what percentage of scams come from these sites. There seem to be much higher rates from perfectly legal entities.
80 per cent of online scams in Britain, according to one bank, come from Meta sites (Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, etc.).⁴ Meta is based in our own country, which time and time again has fired content staff and outsourced and automated standards and quality controls on its platforms, continuously leaving users at increasing risk of fraud and manipulation.⁵ Amazon, another tech conglomerate, was making money by selling illegal streaming hardware that had malware already built in.⁶
The goal of BeStreamWise isn’t really to protect people from fraud: it is to deter people away from IPTV’s copyright material. Sky, in particular, needs to be seen as doing something about its decreasing subscriptions. It lost more than 250,000 customers last year, income was down, Sky Glass sales have been “underwhelming”; and, rather than pointing to a spiralling cost-of-living crisis, increased streaming fees or changes in European sports programme licensing, it’s easier to direct their shareholders’ attention to Dodgy Boxes.
A handful of threats and particular examples are being made. Earlier this month Sky’s Policing Operations took a small pub in Lixnaw, Co. Kerry, with one staff member, to court for just under €50,000 in damages for using a dodgy box.⁷ Another story referred to on the BeStreamWise site notes five men behind the “Flawless” IPTV operation who received more than thirty years’ imprisonment after a prosecution by Premier League: “Criminals behind illegal streaming operations are being jailed.” This was Britain’s largest piracy operation ever, serving 50,000 households, bringing in millions in income; it’s unlikely to be much of a deterrent for your average user or distributor.⁸
FACT also sent out “another wave” of email and letters to Irish dodgy box users over the summer, threatening them with legal action.⁹ The following day the Irish Independent’s technology editor, Adrian Weckler, told the Pat Kenny Show it was “very unlikely” that the Gardaí would prosecute dodgy box users.
So what we’re really seeing is copyright compradors attempting to throw their weight around, whipping up the likes of the Intellectual Property Crime Unit of the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation, with their British and EU equivalent, using our tax-funded institutions to clamp down on breaches of intellectual property laws that these corporations themselves had pressured governments into passing in the first place.
With Disney celebrating a hundred years of existence this month, it’s important to reflect on what “intellectual property” has been warped into. US copyright law in 1923 allowed the protection of materials for up to 56 years from publication. However, following successful lobbying by Disney on two occasions (one known as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act”), the Congress extended copyright to between 95 and 120 years.¹⁰
Legislative protection for artists and makers plays an important part in ensuring that they’re paid properly for their labour. However, the manipulation of these laws by corporations has significantly limited public access to art, medicine, education, and, I’d argue, human progress generally.
The writers and creators behind Disney’s billion-dollar superhero blockbusters see little or nothing for their work,¹¹ and the recent SAG-AFTRA strikes showed that this exploitation applies to artists across the board. The traditional anti-piracy argument—about how illegal streaming hurts artists—has lost all illusion. The real barrier to fair pay for artists is, first and foremost, these monopolies themselves.
On-line piracy is being forced back into public discourse while making sweeping assumptions about the foolishness of the average person. The real problems with corporate overreach, genuine fraud-prevention efforts, the exploitation of workers, and the increasing gatekeeping of art, needs to be where we take their narrative next, because shaming or attempting to scare people away from the sports and stories we love is time and money wasted.
1. “Illegal streams let criminals in,” BeStreamWise.com (https://tinyurl.com/bdd9u6h3)
2. “BeStreamWise: New IPTV anti-piracy campaign begins with fake site ‘scam’,” TorrentFreak.com (https://tinyurl.com/47u7hvxj)
3. Colin Gleeson, “Younger people more vulnerable to scams than older people, PTSB says,” Irish Times, 23 November 2022 (https://tinyurl.com/yc4xrrea)
4. Jess Clark, “Facebook and WhatsApp owner urged by UK bank to act on fraud as scams soar,” Guardian, 5 May 2023 (https://tinyurl.com/3n52rfnk)
5. Hayden Field and Jonathan Vanian, “Tech layoffs ravage the teams that fight online misinformation and hate speech,” CNBC, 26 May 2023 (https://tinyurl.com/5n6235hd)
6. Zack Whittaker, “Popular Android TV boxes sold on Amazon are laced with malware,” TechCrunch, 18 May 2023 (https://tinyurl.com/2m6knemk)
7. Anne Lucey, “Irish pub using ‘dodgy box’ to show Premier League games ordered to pay €20,000 damages to Sky,” Belfast Telegraph, 10 October 2023 (https://tinyurl.com/2uj22vnw)
8. Andy Maxwell, “Flawless IPTV: Men behind UK’s largest pirate service jailed for 30+ years,” TorrentFreak.com, 30 May 2012 (https://tinyurl.com/2z82pnjz)
9. Diarmuid Pepper, “‘Wave of legal warnings’ delivered to dodgy box providers across seven counties,” The Journal, 22 October 2023 (https://tinyurl.com/5exh3nu4)
10. Kshitij Mohan Rawat, “How Disney routinely exerted influence on the US copyright law to keep its greatest asset—Mickey Mouse,” WIO News, 4 January 2012 (https://tinyurl.com/28yhzzf4)
11. Princess Weekes, “More comic creators speak out about paltry pay for lucrative characters they crafted,” Mary Sue, 11 August 2021 (https://tinyurl.com/3e3ztnuf).