The dangers of illegal streaming

By Stuart Fuller


The news that users of free Internet streams showing live football every weekend are putting their devices at risk can hardly be a surprise to anyone who knows how revenues are generated on the Internet.  In a report published by the Department of Computer Science at Stony Brook University, it is suggested that as many as half of the live football streams attempted to place malicious software, delivered through pop-up and overlay adverts or via a requirement to download a specific browser.

With few traditional advertisers willing to advertise on websites that deliver content that can be classed as infringing in certain regions, the websites owners turn to less reputable advertisers to bring revenue in.  The fact that so many users are prepared to take these risks (and potentially infect other machines on the same group networks) for the sake of watching a live game is quite staggering.

Content owners face a daily struggle of trying to locate and shut down illegal streams, a situation made considerably harder when a live game is being broadcast.  Aggregator websites don’t actually host the content – they simply list URLs that link to the content being hosted in the four corners of the world.  The individuals, and in some cases, companies, that host the content know their way around digital intellectual property rights and will often use web servers in countries where IP enforcement is difficult.  In the Stony Brook University study they found that nearly 25% of the content actually originated in Belize, not somewhere where you’d expect digital streaming to be located.

Aggregators constantly monitor the streams, replacing one when another is shut down by the rights holder or ISP.  Streams come in two main forms – ones that start as legitimate transmissions (such as a Sky Sports Sunday afternoon live match) but are then captured and re-broadcast for non-subscribers or those being captured outside of the geographic restricted areas. The latter has been subject to a number of high profile court cases in recent years – questioning whether legitimate satellite receiving equipment can be used outside of the territory it was designed for to show live sport (As defined in Murphy v The Premier League in 2011).

The recent TV deal brokered by The Premier League and BT Sport and Sky will see the broadcasters pay £5.1 billion over the next three years for the right to show live football in the UK.  Their return on investment on this huge amount will come in part from additional subscribers.  Whilst they bear some responsibility for locating and stopping the illegal streams, they will look to the Premier League to take ownership of this.  Unfortunately, it is a mammoth task and one that becomes harder over time due to increases in technology which allow faster, better quality, streaming of data.  Social Media not allows anyone with an internet connection to access content through applications such as Periscope, but also illegal content providers to advertise their services, using URL shorteners to make detection even harder.  There is also the catch 22 situation of broadcasters having to increase subscription costs to cover their increased investment in brand protection mechanisms to counteract illegal streaming, which leads to more people turning to illegal streams due to the increase in costs.

Whilst there has always been a risk that illegal content streaming can lead to the user being punished.  ISP’s have a duty of care to the content and rights holders to take action against known infringers, but in many instances the pure economics of business means that additional costs that could essentially reduce their revenues are not seen as a priority.  However, if users know that they are also putting themselves at serious risk of malware or worse then perhaps that’s the compelling reason to make them stop illegally streaming.