Piracy Shield and overblocking: helping you read between the lines

Friend MTS pioneered server-blocking technologies nearly a decade ago, and have been the most successful – and safest – provider of blocking services and support for sports leagues and rights owners ever since.

Since its inception in Italy earlier this year, the anti-piracy platform Piracy Shield has been courting controversy. Designed to block the unauthorised viewing of live sports events, it has been the subject of sensational headlines around the globe as well as igniting widespread comment and debate about the effectiveness and consequences of blocking technologies.

The Friend MTS teams have gained significant experience in blocking so we thought it would be useful to examine some of the misconceptions that Piracy Shield has triggered. We have been deploying Dynamic Delivery Server Blocking successfully and safely in the UK, and beyond, for a growing roster of big-name broadcasters, content producers and sports rights owners since we pioneered the use of server-blocking technology in 2017.

In short, done properly, blocking works. It is a highly effective and impactful way to safeguard content owners’ and rights holders’ revenues by cutting off access to illegal streams. 

But the devil is in the detail. Blocking operates on multiple layers, with both legal and technical dimensions. Moreover, given the labyrinthine nature of the internet, carrying out any act of targeted, specific traffic blocking is tremendously complex.

What is Piracy Shield?

Thanks to a new regulatory framework introduced by the Italian authorities in January 2024 (Resolution no. 321/23/CONS), an obligation for Italian ISPs to block access to specific digital content was created. Piracy Shield was developed by the communication regulator, Autorità per le Garanzie nelle Comunicazioni (AGCOM) to facilitate the secure submission of IP addresses and domains of piracy targets to ISPs for blocking. The legislation stipulates that blocking must be executed by ISP’s within 30 minutes of targets being published by PiracyShield. Blockable content includes live coverage in Italy of sports events including Serie A football, UEFA Champions League, and Italian Cup basketball matches.

According to AGCOM estimates, by blocking around 528 IP addresses and 114 illegal sites, Piracy Shield prevented around 100,000 households from illegally watching premium content in February this year.

Piracy Shield allows large sports rights holders and pay-TV broadcasters like DAZN, Sky Italia, Prime Video and Mediaset Infinity to report pirated sports content in real-time. Once a blocking order is obtained by rights holders ISPs, VPNs and open DNS services are then required to block access within 30 minutes of reporting and without any further judicial review. The order compels these organisations to block access to the reported IP addresses and domains for the duration of the event.

Overblocking and unintended consequences

One of the concerns levied against Piracy Shield has been overblocking. In other words, while implementing blocking to infringing content, it has inadvertently blocked access to legitimate sources, and impacted ‘good traffic’. For example, an IP address belonging to Cloudflare found itself on the Piracy Shield block list and prevented innocent traffic from reaching the ODW Prison Volunteers Association, and Elimobile, a telecoms company, among others. This is because, like many similar services, Cloudflare IP addresses can be used by multiple customers at the same time (also referred to as multi-tenanted). The reasons for this error haven’t been made clear but such overblocking can happen through inexperience, system design, human mistakes, or simple oversight. 

This is understandably causing much anger and frustration as internet users lose access to websites that have nothing to do with piracy. This fear of overblocking has also led to distrust from legitimate companies about the burdensome requirements of Piracy Shield as well as concerns about privacy rights. This has caused the likes of VPN provider AirVPN to discontinue its services in Italy.

Getting the blocking balance right

Piracy Shield is a step in the right direction and sets an important precedent for dynamic content blocking in Italy. However, it is still very much in its infancy and requires maturity to become truly effective. Meanwhile, there are numerous examples of highly successful and well-implemented blocking solutions being used in other places around the world, all carefully calibrated to avoid any instances of overblocking.

Selecting the right blocking method for the job is fundamental. And deploying it in the right way at the right time for a specific customer operating in a specific territory requires a broad and deep understanding of the piracy landscape. You can read more about different approaches here.

It’s critical that blocking is implemented on the back of best-in-class monitoring functions to provide forensically accurate lists of candidate sites that precisely match criteria set by regulators. This is to ensure that details of a piracy target subject to blocking won’t cause collateral damage to unrelated and legitimate services. This should be combined with detailed technical knowledge and comprehension of diverse legal requirements. 

Recognising that sometimes blocking is not the right approach is equally important. For example, if a hosting provider demonstrates a willingness to proactively remove illegal content from their network in an appropriate time frame, they should not be subject to blocking. 

Building blocks for safe implementation

Since 2017, Friend MTS has honed our Dynamic Delivery Server Blocking expertise through extensive testing and experience, empowering our customers to help eradicate piracy. 

Ensuring safe, robust blocking – and by definition avoiding any instances of overblocking – requires meticulously researched “allow lists” and “never block lists”. It is critical to be aware of which hosting providers, domains, or services should never be subject to blocking, even if partially used to facilitate piracy. Blocking list providers have to maintain a constant awareness of the potential impact of sites co-hosted behind obfuscation services, such as Cloudflare.

Blocking duration is another key consideration. Blocks are defined by legal orders, which often contain an explicit definition of when blocking is allowed to occur. Therefore it is important that  blocking is only applied for the appropriate time period. For example, to avoid overblocking it is essential that when protecting a specific live sporting event, the block should be lifted as soon as the event or content defined in the order is complete.

Before and throughout the block, active and ongoing lists of targets should be regularly reviewed for accuracy. Infringing sites that are discovered during the event must be added, but more importantly, servers that have ceased hosting illicit content should be removed from the list. For example, hosting providers routinely reallocate IP addresses from pirate operators to unrelated and legitimate businesses; if this happens, the block must be lifted.

Tailor-made blocking

Blocking is multi-layered and highly complex but, when implemented safely and robustly, it is a proven and highly effective way to cut off access to illegal streams and safeguard the revenue of content owners and rights holders. 

If you want to find out more about how Friend MTS works closely with our clients to offer tailor-made blocking solutions to stop piracy and deliver measurable results from day one please contact us today. 

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