Guess who the real victims of piracy are…

People like to tell themselves and others that piracy of entertainment media is a victimless crime, by which they typically mean that their one little download of a major motion picture doesn’t hurt anyone when the studio that produced said picture is making millions.  I’ve assailed this fallacy in more than a few posts, but a report released today by London-based NetNames, in collaboration with the Digital Citizens Alliance, makes quite clear that if you’re a user of a pirate site, the most vulnerable victim in the transaction may well be you.

This time last year, Dr. David Price authored a report for NetNames called “Sizing the Piracy Universe,” which as the title implies, took a very broad look at the global piracy ecosystem.  This new report “Behind the Cyberlocker Door” specifically examines the mechanics and finances of the top 30 cyberlocker sites, which are designed specifically to facilitate mass theft of copyrighted material.  Fifteen of the sites were direct download sites, and fifteen were streaming sites, and all were found to be profitable enterprises deriving revenues from a combination of advertising and the sale of premium accounts, primarily process through Visa and MasterCard.

For readers who don’t know about cyberlockers, think of the system as a vastly more robust version of a legal cloud storage service like Dropbox designed to share a limited volume of files with family, friends, and business colleagues.  These cyberlockers facilitate uploading and downloading of unlimited files worldwide among complete strangers, and  the report states unsurprisingly that the majority of the content (roughly 80% not including pornography) found on these sites is comprised of illegally distributed copyrighted works — movies, music, books, and video games.  The 30 sites studied earn collective annual profit of about $69 million.

These may not be compelling statistics to the staunch piracy advocate or even the casual piracy dabbler, who wants to convince himself that these enterprises are just a reaction to outdated scarcity caused by unreasonable copyright regimes and greedy producers.  But just because Kim Dotcom, the founders of The Pirate Bay, and even Internet industry advocates like to make grandiose, ideological claims about piracy, people should not be fooled for a second that the owners of these sites are quite so high-minded as all that.  In fact, parents of kids with unfettered access to computers ought to pay particular attention because these sites can be plain dangerous.  Dr. Price’s report indicates that more than half of all cyberlocker sties are responsible for malware infections on computers.  This is particularly worrisome as more and more consumers gravitate toward mobile devices, and the threat of identity theft through malware will likely become more acute.  Mobile devices are typically less secure than home computers, and people are storing an increasing amount of personal and financial data on mobile devices through apps designed to make transactions and communications more convenient.

A typical way in which malware is introduced by a content-theft cyberlocker, one offering downloads of movies for instance, is to sell users premium accounts and/or third-party software to expedite downloads and playback of motion pictures.  Not only do these sites charge for the service — and we’ll come back to that — but the process stepping users through sign-up and/or downloading player software is designed to mask the introduction of malware to a computer that can then be used for identity theft.  The money made by advertising and selling premium accounts to infringing material is good money for these sites, but that business model is really just bait to attract users to these sites in order to exploit their data in some more substantial fashion.  So, I know it’s terrible that content producers would ever presume to charge dirty dirty money for legal access to their works, but $3.99 to rent a movie seems like a way better deal than letting some hacker in Ukraine roam around in my personal data.

One might rationally ask why someone would pay $10/month for a premium account on one of these cyberlockers but refuse to pay $8 for an account with a legal distributor like Netflix.  The answer will invariably come back that a Netflix or a Hulu, for instance, doesn’t have every film or TV show ever made whereas these sites that don’t enter into legal agreements with producers do have just about every title you can name.   I suppose for some, that rationale is enough justification for doing harm to producers as well as risking their own data security, but the premium account phenomenon does give lie to all that nonsense calling copyright a form of “artificial scarcity.”  I mean, what are the pirates doing offering slow downloads for free and fast downloads for a price other than “creating artificial scarcity” in their own black-market paradigm?

Quite simply, piracy is a business that exploits the labor of one segment of society in order to fleece another segment of society who think they’re getting away with something.  And if that other segment is you and your data gets hacked, maybe all this pseudo-progressive talk about piracy as a social good will start to sound more like the hogwash it is.

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