DMCA subpoena applications filed at courts in the United States provide a relatively inexpensive mechanism for compelling intermediaries to hand over the personal details of allegedly-infringing users.
Since Cloudflare offers reverse proxy services to websites as part of its free tier, most subpoena applications filed in the United States target the company. They typically seek disclosure of pirate site operators’ personal details, and it’s not uncommon to see a dozen domains feature in one application or more in a bundle filed at the same time.
As revealed in our report last month, South Korea’s Naver Webtoon filed a single application containing over 350 ‘pirate’ domains, easily the highest number we’ve seen in recent years, possibly the most ever.
After remaining silent for several months, late last week Naver Webtoon issued a press release. It claimed that after obtaining the subpoena and taking unspecified action, the company “halted the activities of 150 overseas illegal sites.”
That’s an eye-catching figure because in many cases Cloudflare has little useful information to pass on. It also represents a level of success currently enjoyed by no other rightsholders using the same process, which is highly unusual. That alone warrants a closer look but first, a brief summary of key statements in the release.
Naver Webtoon’s Key Statements
– After three months of hard work by Naver Webtoon, about 150 overseas illegal sites stopped operating. This is the result of Naver Webtoon’s action to issue a ‘Subpoena’ through a U.S. court, the first in the webtoon industry.
– Illegal site operator information, such as address, email, and payment details, is essential information for tracking and arrest. Subpoenas also have the effect of discouraging the activities of illegal site operators.
– According to the traffic statistics site ‘Similar Web’, the annual user traffic to about 150 illegal sites affected by Naver Webtoon’s action is approximately 2.5 billion.
– Naver Webtoon plans to share the information on illegal site operators obtained this time with investigative agencies and respond strictly with a zero-tolerance policy.
Right off the bat it’s worth highlighting that the subpoena listed 360 domain names, not 360 sites. To illustrate why that’s so important, one of the sites targeted appears to have begun life as ‘Newtoki’ but then registered subsequent domains that also include a number; newtoki1, newtoki2, newtoki3, etc.
A total of 19 of these variants appeared in the subpoena, as low as newtoki17.org and as high as newtoki310.com. There appears to be at least another 100 domains in a similar format, hundreds in total (some apparently owned by an anti-piracy company), but none functioning as a pirate site. Persistence may have paid off here, but there are nearly always more domains than sites and that can significantly distort perceived outcomes.
That being said, a bigger and perhaps more straightforward win may justify the campaign in its own right.
Closure of Just One Site Suggests Campaign Paid Off
Aquamanga.com was one of two sites mentioned specifically by Naver Webtoon following its press release last week.
Traffic to Aquamanga was significant to say the least. SimilarWeb data reveals a site receiving considerable traffic on an upwards trajectory; 61 million visits in September, up from 52.6m in July.
We’ve seen no evidence to show the site has reappeared under a different domain, and information suggests that the deterrent effect mentioned by Naver Webtoon may have done its job in this case. Overall, the closure of Aquamanga seems to be the highlight of the campaign and since it accounts for three quarters of a billion visits, understandably so.
Another Big Closure But Less Satisfactory Outcome
Another site that received a direct mention from Naver was Flamescans.org. The popular scanlation site was also doing well; SimilarWeb data for August and September shows between 18.1m and 18.7m visits per month, progress that was halted when the site suddenly went offline.
“Thank you to all of our community members for their continued support. Unfortunately, this site has discontinued all services related to the function and content hosted as of October 19, 2023. We appreciate your steadfast engagement and commitment to us through the years,” a notice on the homepage reads.
While the quality of the ‘artwork’ accompanying the goodbye message won’t keep Webtoon’s artists up at night, it strongly implies that things might not be over just yet.
The image above shows Flamescans to the left of the goodbye message and Flame-Comics to the right. They appear identical and show that while domains are important, they’re not as important as sites.
Interestingly, a bitcoin address on the Flamescans.org domain marked “Anonymous Donations” has received a total of 0.00000000 BTC ($0.00) thus far. It’s possible that pirate frugality and relatively complicated crypto transactions aren’t the best mix.
Also listed in the subpoena but still online are five ‘Agitoon’ .xyz domains beginning agit571 and ending agit577.xyz. They carry the same epilepsy-inducing gambling advertising previously seen on the now-shuttered Noonoo TV.
Naver Webtoon says that in addition to sending direct warnings to “selected” illegal sites, it also works to undermine their ability to do business. Domain registrars, hosting companies, ISPs, social media platforms and payment services are among the potential targets.
Due to these efforts, 23 unnamed sites witnessed a 30% fall in traffic in October when compared to July, the company reports.
‘Good News’ For the Entire Webtoon Industry
Summing up, Naver Webtoon says that its anti-piracy work isn’t just good for the company, it’s good for everyone involved in webtoons.
“This achievement is helpful not only to Naver Webtoon but also to the entire webtoon industry, which is suffering damage from illegal webtoon sites,” says Kim Gyu-nam, Naver Webtoon’s legal affairs chief and anti-piracy task force leader.
“The platform will do its best to eradicate illegal webtoons. We will continue to actively take all possible measures.”
Given the constantly shifting nature of many pirate sites, especially those that operate multiple domains and/or move to new ones hoping to evade various measures, it’s difficult to determine whether Naver Webtoon really did shut down 150 sites. In its press release it actually notes that “about 150 sites were completely deleted or temporarily suspended operations” which does change things somewhat.
Still, if putting domains out of action was part of the mission, that seems to have been quite effective. The image below shows a screenshot/preview image of every domain in the subpoena. In the majority of cases, those with no image are out of action.
Whether any have moved to new domains is another question, but none will have welcomed the disruption and won’t welcome the future disruption Naver Webtoon is already promising.
From: TF, for the latest news on copyright battles, piracy and more.