For a long time, pirate site blocking was considered a topic most U.S. politicians would rather avoid.
This stance was a remnant of the SOPA defeat, which drove copyright holders to focus on blocking efforts in other countries instead, and not without success.
Those challenging times are now more than a decade old, and momentum is shifting. After more than forty countries around the world instituted site-blocking measures, including in Canada, U.S. lawmakers may be more receptive to revisiting this topic.
House Committee Hearing on Piracy
Yesterday, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet held a hearing on Digital Copyright Piracy. Specifically, lawmakers were interested to learn about the scope of the problem and the solutions available today.
The representatives heard testimony from four witnesses. Rightsholders were represented by MPA’s Karyn Temple, UFC’s Riché McKnight, and award-winning producer Richard Gladstein. On the other side, CCIA’s Matthew Schruers defended the interests of Internet services.
From the start, it was clear that lawmakers see piracy as a serious problem that requires solutions. U.S. Representative and committee chairman, Darrell Issa, started the hearing by presenting an overview of today’s challenges, from a global perspective.
Pirates are ‘Hosted’ on Russian Military Bases
The committee chairman notes that piracy has evolved from back-alley sales of DVDs to international criminal operations. He specifically mentioned the Vietnamese-operated streaming site Fmovies, while Russian military bases also play a role.
“Many of these pirate websites like Fmovies are hosted on servers that exist outside the United States, currently outside our ability to take them down. This creates unique judicial challenges for enforcement against widespread piracy on such websites.
“In some cases, these websites are even hosted within foreign governments, like the Russian government on military bases, and other enemies of the United States,” Rep. Issa adds.
The Russian reference is interesting as the country has some of the most strict anti-piracy laws in the world today. Throughout the hearing, there was no further mention of the Russian military bases, but the comment may refer to optical disc piracy that took place nearly 30 years ago.
Fmovies, on the other hand, remained front and center at the House hearing.
Lawmakers get Fmovies Walkthrough
With over 160 million monthly visits, Fmovies is one of the most notorious pirate streaming sites. The portal recently rebranded to Fmoviesz but the modus operandi remains the same; people can watch whatever they want, whenever they like, without paying a dime.
MPA’s Senior Executive Vice President, Karyn Temple, illustrated the problem by giving a live demonstration of the website at the hearing.
“Anyone can simply type the Fmovies URL into their favorite browser today and an extremely professional and legitimate-looking site pops up. You can literally scroll through thousands of movies and television shows including this year’s Blockbusters and even movies that have not yet hit theaters.
“You’ll see all of our top-rated Blockbusters and popular films. Here you see coming up Wonka, which won’t be out in the United States theaters until this Friday,” Temple said while browsing through the site.
Temple points out that most of the site’s visitors come from the United States. The MPA tried to take action against the site and encouraged the U.S. Department of Justice to help out but, since Fmovies’ operators are in Vietnam and its servers are in Bulgaria, options are limited.
‘U.S. Needs Pirate Site Blocking’
Several MPA representatives visited Vietnam earlier this year but that hasn’t resulted in concrete enforcement actions either. This means that blocking the site through ISPs, as many other countries do, is one of the only viable options at the moment.
“If we had site blocking in the United States, as we do in the 16 other countries where versions of this site have been blocked already, then this piracy site’s U.S. traffic would have plummeted, protecting us consumers and the US creative sector, while removing the financial incentives for piracy,” Temple said.
“It’s beyond time for Congress to revisit no-fault injunctive relief to combat blatant forms of piracy.”
Why Are ISPs Not Blocking Fmovies Today?
The call for site blocking is supported by other creative industry witnesses, who all describe it as an effective anti-piracy tool. CCIA President Matthew Schruers, whose organization represents several Internet services, was the hearing’s sole dissenting voice in respect of blocking.
“The blunt instrument of architectural regulation is particularly inappropriate for policing subject matter like copyright,” Schruers informed the committee.
“There exists a long history of site-blocking injunctions leading to overreach. This includes examples of overblocking restricting access to thousands of websites, without evidence or process. It is simply not possible to craft a uniquely American, speech-protecting site-blocking regime.”
Schruers stressed that the availability of legal content remains the key option to deter piracy, while noting the availability of less-invasive enforcement avenues that can be explored.
These concerns didn’t immediately convince all lawmakers and U.S. Representative Ted Lieu was particularly vocal. After browsing the Fmovies site on his phone during the hearing, he asked CCIA’s President why ISPs don’t block the site right now.
“I just went on my phone and went on Fmovies and it’s still up. And I can watch Willy Wonka for free without paying for it. Why don’t the online service providers block it right now, like today?” Lieu asked.
“This is such an unreasonable case it is so clearly online piracy copyright infringement and you don’t want your organization and your members to be defending something so blatantly unlawful and unreasonable. So I just ask your members to block that site today.”
Mr. Schruers highlighted that the broadband access providers who can block the site aren’t here today and again stressed that legal availability is important and that less-invasive anti-piracy options are available. That didn’t convince Rep. Lieu, however, who requested the ISPs to be present at a future hearing.
“I ask the Chair of this Committee to call in a hearing with the witness that represents the members that could block this site and block it now,” Lieu said.
SOPA Scars and Instant Takedowns
Committee Chairman Darrell Issa agreed to invite the ISPs directly for a future hearing, so they can explain their position. Meanwhile, it also became clear that the tensions of the SOPA debates more than ten years ago, have left permanent scars.
“I hope we don’t get into another tumultuous, dysfunctional technical fight as we did twelve years ago,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren noted.
The copyright representatives made repeated callbacks to the previous attempt to establish an American site-blocking regime. At the time, there were massive public protests and a broad revolt by Internet companies who feared overblocking and other negative consequences.
These concerns were real at the time but now that site blocking has been rolled out in dozens of countries around the world, they should be reconsidered.
“None of the hyperbolic predictions about the effects of site blocking have come true. Examples of overblocking of non-infringing content, stifling free expression, or deprivation of due process have been rare to the point of non-existence,” MPA’s Temple said.
Mr. Schruers countered by pointing out that there have been overblocking incidents, reminding lawmakers that Spotify was inadvertently blocked in the House of Representatives ten years ago.
All in all, however, the Committee made it clear that something must be done.
Chairman Darrell Issa ended the hearing by mentioning that the import of copyrighted and trademarked goods can be easily stopped by U.S. customs, suggesting that the same should apply to the ‘import’ of pirated goods online through sites such as Fmovies.
“For what’s possible in the tangible world, we want to find a solution in the Internet world. We will not quit under this committee until we do so,” Issa concluded.
From: TF, for the latest news on copyright battles, piracy and more.