Pirates, streamers reshape the digital landscape

By Colin Gamm and Mac Crane

Biz Pedersen, a Pitzer junior, watches her fair share of television.

“Around 18 hours a week,” she admitted. Her favorite shows are “Dexter,” “Fringe,” “Sons of Anarchy,” and “Boardwalk Empire.” However, Pedersen doesn’t have cable or own a television. Like many college students, she goes online for her TV and movie fix, tracking down the latest episodes through any site she can find.

In recent years, more and more viewers have begun turning to the Internet to find shows and movies. Although there are legal sites that host media like Hulu, Netflix, and HBO GO, many Internet users choose illegal streaming sites and file-sharing programs to access a near-limitless library of free, copyrighted material. The Internet remains a relatively unregulated space for these sorts of activities, but the efforts of federal legislation and litigation are gradually becoming more visible.

Streaming refers to watching content online without downloading it. Netflix and Hulu offer a legal avenue to watch TV and movies online at high quality, but most or all of their libraries require a subscription fee to access. A few years ago, Hulu offered most of its content for free with few commercials, but now users have to watch minutes of commercials and pay for Hulu Plus to access most of the content.

“With the ads, it’s close to what you have on TV anyways,” said Pedersen.

As legal sites began restricting their free content, more and more viewers turned to illegal streaming. The most famous of these was Megaupload, a Hong Kong-based company that was the number-one illegal streaming site for years. At the peak of its popularity, Megaupload was the 52nd most frequently visited website and boasted 4 percent of the total megabytes transmitted on the web.

“I remember the glory days of Megavideo,” said Pedersen.

Before it was shut down in January, Megaupload was online for 7 years and hosted almost every movie and TV show imaginable. It was famously reliable and had minimal advertising. However, this year Megaupload was shut down by a federal indictment and is accused of causing an estimated half-billion-dollar loss for the copyrighted material it hosted.

Since Megaupload’s disappearance, other illegal streaming sites have popped up, but many of them are unreliable, slow to load, and have annoying pop-up advertisements.

“Sometimes you have to close four pop-up ads for one video,” Pedersen said. In the last few months it has become increasingly difficult to find TV shows and movies online, although Pedersen is still able to watch most of her shows. Yet, at the same time as illegal streaming is becoming more of a hassle, more and more TV networks are putting their content online with commercials and subscription fees.

“TVs are becoming extraneous, especially for how young people are watching and living their lives,” said Pedersen.

In addition to streaming media content, students can also illegally download – or “pirate” – shows or movies to their computer. The process, also referred to as “torrenting”, often violates copyright laws. However, because of the anonymity of the Internet and the sheer numbers of downloaders – one major torrenting client estimates that it has approximately 150 million users – individual prosecutions are rare.

Internet piracy is constantly under attack from the groups who lose massive profits from it; most notably, the Motion Picture Association of America and several recording labels. According to Pitzer Information Technology server manager, Chris Peterson, Pitzer receives notices from these groups asking the college to confront certain file sharers. Usually, around five students are tracked down per month, given a warning, and forced to meet with the Dean of students to promise to stop pirating content. According to Peterson, “It’s very rare to get second notices on any one student,” although punishment does escalate for those who ignore their warning.

Many Pitzer students torrent anyway, and Peterson acknowledges that they may only catch a “small percentage” of offenders. Those who do engage in piracy generally cite their willingness to take from wealthy corporations as their primary moral justification for piracy.

Naomi Brooks, a first-year, said, “When I download, I always have this image of corporate America telling me it’s wrong. But if it’s a small-time artist, and they’re on iTunes, then I’ll buy that.”

Fellow first-year Alexandra Griffin was one of those caught pirating content. “I feel like the industries affected by this don’t necessarily need the extra money,” she said.

Pitzer students who depend on piracy should also be concerned about federal legal action. In October 2011, the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, was introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives. The proposed legislation would force Internet providers to block access to those who illegally download or stream copyrighted content. The act was met with widespread opposition from the online community, and a group of websites, including giants Wikipedia and Reddit, blacked out for a day in protest. Support for SOPA quickly evaporated, but Congress is still looking for ways to restrict Internet piracy.

Another concern about SOPA and similar anti-piracy acts is that they are the first step toward regulating the free new frontier of the Internet. Griffin, attempting to recall exactly what SOPA was, said, “It’s Internet censorship, isn’t it?” To many, the Internet is the latest stage in the struggle between oppression and freedom, and it may not remain unregulated and uncensored forever.

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