Inside DStv’s boots-on-the-ground war on piracy

Content pirates are finding new ways to circumvent broadcasters’ security technologies. Rightsholders and content owners have to use every tool at their disposal to fight these threats and protect their revenue.

When Naspers’s then-CEO Koos Bekker pitched the idea of a satellite television subscription service to Naspers in 1986 – from which DStv parent MultiChoice Group evolved — he realised an encryption company would be necessary to fight piracy; Irdeto was acquired to fulfil that function for the group.

Irdeto’s anti-piracy director, Frikkie Jonker, told TechCentral in an interview on Monday that streaming services must work tirelessly to ensure viewers pay for the content they consume by tightening up on security and limiting how content is shared. An end-to-end approach combines security technology with expert piracy oversight, cyber investigations, intelligence analysis and targeted enforcement.

“When we (MultiChoice) buy rights, we buy them for sub-Saharan Africa,” he said. “But there will always be people who want to watch content and not pay for it.”

There are various ways pirates steal content:

  • Cable piracy occurs when one or more MultiChoice set-top boxes are connected to the headend of a cable pirate operation and are the sort of connections you could find in hotels or gated residential estates. A pirate cable operator will usually provide false information during the enablement process of a MultiChoice smartcard.
  • Grey markets occur when, for instance, beIN Sports and Canal+ smartcards are sold outside the Middle East and used illegally within cable and rebroadcasting pirate operations on the African continent.
  • Then there is cross-border piracy, when a MultiChoice decoder dedicated to a specific country is taken to another country to be used illegally. This contravenes the geographical rights of the content and oftentimes a country’s state broadcaster’s rights.
  • Hotels, restaurants, clubs and pubs are often guilty of commercial piracy, when a smartcard is activated illegally to screen MultiChoice channels in public places with false information given by the subscriber during the enabling process.
  • Internet streaming piracy is one of the most common forms of illegal viewing, and occurs when one or more pay television operators are hosted within a private server operation and then illegally redistributed via the internet, with subscribers paying a fee to view the pirated content.

Jonker said the digital age has provided pirates with a vast array of tools and platforms to distribute content illegally. Piracy is no longer limited to straightforward downloads: pirates now use illicit streaming sites, real-time sharing through platforms like Popcorn Time, for example, which offers a Netflix-like interface but sources content from illegal torrent sites.

Pirates use virtual private networks to mask their activities, while peer-to-peer networks decentralise distribution, making it harder to pinpoint a single source of the pirated content.

The obvious result is a loss of tax revenue, as sales and subscriptions of legitimate content decrease; job losses occur in the film industry as the sector shrinks due to content being shared illegally; and consumers accessing pirated content expose themselves to malware and phishing attacks.

“One study found that a third of pirate websites deliver malware payloads disguised as plugin downloads or updates,” Jonker said. “Internet streaming piracy is not only a criminal offence, but also poses serious risks to consumers who may have their personal data, including banking information, stolen by pirate operations.”

Partners Against Piracy (PAP), of which MultiChoice is a principal member, said content piracy globally is at an all-time high. High-quality content and advanced streaming technologies have become more easily available and often fund other crimes, such as identity theft, child pornography and people trafficking, PAP said.

Justice minister Ronald Lamola committed South Africa to fighting content piracy at the launch of PAP in March 2022.

In South Africa, it is illegal to provide content to any person or any third party without the consent of the rightsholders in accordance with the Copyright Act and Electronic Communications & Transactions Act. “Content theft has become a full-fledged criminal enterprise, providing illegal subscriptions to compete with established operators, and actions like ours are crucial in the fight against piracy,” said Jonker.

As determined as the pirates are, so are the teams fighting piracy.

“Our cyber teams scour the internet every day,” said Jonker. “They look at Twitter, at YouTube, at Facebook and examine posts on social media that look suspicious. Staff and installers report information to us.”

Jonker said other pay-TV platforms also report transgressions to MultiChoice, from as far afield as beIN Sports in Asia and Sky Sports in the UK.

DStv programming

The anti-piracy department has a large pool of ex-policemen, ex-military and ex-special forces operatives in Africa, Jonker said, who have a relationship with police officers in African countries and who are not afraid to raid premises and serve seizure warrants.

He mentioned two successful convictions in Bellville, for instance, and said in both cases the Hawks and the police’s commercial crimes unit were involved.

Lee Whaley, a UK citizen, was arrested in December 2019 by detectives from the provincial commercial unit for selling Android TV boxes and internet protocol television subscriptions, allowing access to premium copyrighted content, including DStv programming.

Government promises to fight piracy by working with the private sector

In November 2022, Jordan Mott was convicted of selling Android TV boxes and ordered to pay R120 000.

Pirates operate globally, with most piracy in Africa occurring in Nigeria and Ghana. In May in the UK, five men who illegally streamed Premier League football matches to thousands of people were jailed. They sold cut-price £10/month subscriptions, showing games not otherwise available to watch live in the UK because of “blackout” broadcasting rules.  – © 2023 NewsCentral Media

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