With the beoutQ story of unprecedented content theft unfolding just a few years ago, beIN is not new among the broadcasters on the front line of the battle against content piracy. Just as the FIFA World Cup 2022 started in Qatar with beIN as official broadcaster, our Regional VP for EMEA Simon Hanna caught up with beIN’s Legal Director heading anti-piracy operations Cameron Andrews on the latest from the content protection and anti-piracy battlefield in the MENA region and beyond. Let’s take a look at the highlights of this insightful discussion that took place at the SportsPro OTT summit in Madrid.
What piracy challenges are unique to the MENA region?
There is a lot of commonality across regions with piracy, in particular with internet piracy, and we are facing similar issues faced by other broadcasters. We work closely with broadcasters such as Sky, to discuss strategy and collaborate. The issues in the MENA region are particularly acute: the weak legal regime in some territories contributes to the issues, there are a lot of very sophisticated pirates, and there is a lot of history of piracy in the region going back to satellite piracy and control word sharing. It all provides a very strong foundation and culture of piracy in the region, which makes what we do very challenging.
How has the piracy landscape evolved in recent years?
It’s all about online piracy now, pirate IPTV services. In some parts of MENA, it’s still a satellite issue due to the nature of the markets but it’s changing very rapidly and all pirates are moving online. We have three key types of piracy:
Pirate IPTV services are channel focused and you have 16 sports channels with various sports properties. So, pirates steal all sports, not just Premier League matches, for instance?
Yes, it’s a linear channel problem. Pirates are stealing all the properties that we have plus all the production we put with it. However, pirates in MENA are particularly focused on beIN and work hard to ensure they have very good quality beIN streams on their service while all other content is an add-on, because pirates want to provide a package with thousands of channels. Football is huge in MENA and we have other properties, but most of our focus is on protecting the football content.
What are broadcasters’ vs content owners’ responsibilities when it comes to fighting piracy?
Each party has clear roles to play. A few years ago we were talking a lot about the need for rights owners to do more and the big ones heard our message, stepped up and indeed do more today. It’s centralised monitoring that content owners need to take care of as you need one entity to monitor the internet, particularly social media in terms of ingesting content to different platforms, and also coordinating and taking charge of the takedowns.
On the broadcaster side, our role is to secure the channels and the whole distribution platform, and have excellent monitoring in place with all that we find feeding into our watermarking detection processes. Monitoring gives us a picture of the piracy landscape. We also have blocking programmes to do: we work in the countries where we can do this and the number of these countries is increasing, especially in the last 12 months. We need to do investigation and enforcement: we joined ACE at the start of the year, bringing legal cases and seeing good results from our partnership.
So, monitoring needs to be done by content owners but on top of that, you monitor additionally for redistribution for your channels. What does your monitoring provider do when they discover illegally redistributed content? Do they send notices?
Monitoring is the key bit, it gives us a picture of what our piracy landscape is. We monitor both the open internet – this is websites and social media – plus we have built a panel of IPTV services that we monitor. It’s important that monitoring feeds into the watermark detection process which secures our set-top-box platform and our players. We have that part of the platform very secure. As a result, most of the piracy you see will be from pirates that are very sophisticated and are able to bypass the security of the players and set-top-boxes, essentially exploiting legacy, leeching from CDN, etc. It’s really about this seamless workflow – we have the monitoring that feeds into our watermark detection portals: when we find sources of streams we have a process to kill them in real time.
In addition, we put a lot of effort into traditional notice and takedown. We analyse the internet companies that are facilitating these streams, who the internet service providers (ISPs) are and who the streaming platforms are, then we send them takedown notices. My team does a lot of outreach to these companies to improve takedown compliance and to work with them to have the pirates stop using their platforms. Very big US and EU companies can be used by pirates. However, as a result of outreach, we have seen that drop a lot. Where the piracy is tending to shift now is “offshore” providers – there are streaming platforms and ISPs that sit at the backbone of all of these, creating structures that put them in offshore locations, operating anonymously for the sole purpose of providing services to pirates and other people that engaged in undesirable activity on the internet. So, there are compliant and non-compliant providers. As a result of our outreach, a lot of piracy shifts to non-compliant providers.
Notices are ineffective when it comes to a non-compliant provider but you have to send them prior to bringing legal action as you need to show that you have tried to stop them.
Investigation and enforcement are still part of the mix though not a solution to piracy. It’s a lot for an individual broadcaster to take on, so it’s better to do it in a partnership, for example, with an organisation like ACE.
So, such anti-piracy measures as monitoring, legal enforcement and blocking constitute the base level?
I would say, the base level is building a platform that is secure, in particular, an OTT platform. You can do a lot to deter piracy through real-time data analysis which needs to be built into your platform from the beginning. Also, you need to have the means to kill streams in real time and take action against abusers on your platform.
How exactly does business intelligence play out in fighting piracy? For instance, observing behaviour of subscribers and identifying illicit unnatural activities (like an individual watching a channel for 9 months without stopping).
A lot can be done in the OTT space to deter piracy. We have DTH linear channels that are on our OTT platform, so it’s quite dynamic. When we close loopholes in the DTH security, the loopholes that are often to do with legacy, the whole piracy landscape changes quickly and we see a spike in OTT. We can identify accounts and IP addresses that are abusing our platforms, identify individuals who can be connected to pirates and shut down accounts: the OTT piracy goes right down.
You only have so much data, it’s really difficult to understand the scale of piracy, the scope of the problem. Monitoring doesn’t tell you how much is being consumed but rather how much is available. If you could have ISPs’ insights: IP addresses of pirates, so ISPs can have a look at how much of your paying subscribers actually access these addresses.
It’s difficult to get this data. We rely on much more traditional market survey methods and they show it’s a huge problem.
A lot of commercial piracy is restreaming piracy. Casual pirates also restream but it’s not as scalable. With more traditional commercial-scale piracy, however, we are talking about a professional setup where often set-top-boxes are used to source the content. But what we are seeing more and more of is pirates looking to exploit weaknesses in OTT delivery. What should we be doing about this?
We have watermarking across our whole platform. We use Friend MTS’s product on OTT and it’s been enormously successful in deterring and preventing set-top-box- and streaming-based piracy. In terms of casual piracy (like restreaming on Twitch or YouTube), we don’t really have this problem a lot. We do see it from time to time but can deal with it very effectively.
What we currently have is a pirate ecosystem fuelled by quite a small number of very sophisticated pirates who are able to supply the IPTV ecosystem which in turn, supplies the websites and social media. So, it really comes down to these key sources who are sophisticated operators. They know how to exploit weaknesses in the DTH platform and their skills go back to the control word-sharing days. On the OTT side, they are able to exploit the architecture and identify lots of potential points of leakage. This is where data analysis becomes important as we can identify the threats and attacks, and take action to stop them.
Is the only long-term solution to piracy a much better legal control of hosting providers and ISPs?
It’s a mixture of things, not just legal. We have done a great deal of disruption for pirates in MENA in the lead-up to the World Cup. We rattled users’ confidence in the use of the pirate services and as a result, have seen a growth in subscriber revenue which we can attribute to our anti-piracy actions.
The first thing to recognise in the short to medium term is that you may not be able to “win the war against piracy” but there are battles along the way where you can have significant victories and you can see a positive return from that. In MENA we are starting to see that. It’s the result of different things that we do: blocking, takedown notices, watermarking strategies and platform security. We deploy upgraded measures at strategic times to create disruption for the pirates. It is about doing a range of different things at strategic points to win battles with piracy.
A lot of issues we face on the security side are legacy issues that have been around for some time and it’s difficult to address these due to commercial reasons. But when you are building a new platform, you have an opportunity to have some blue sky thinking about it. If you build in security at an early stage and if you create the right workflows, meaning all the right parts of your business are engaged, including monitoring, being able to take action in real time against piracy and being able to analyse your user data and your CDN usage etc., you can create a very secure platform that’s difficult for pirates to run a parasitical business from.
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