Motion Picture Industry Presses For Federal Crackdown On Streaming Piracy

The motion picture industry is pressing the federal government to bring criminal prosecutions against companies that create and distribute over-the-top devices that enable people to easily stream pirated videos.

"Combatting the growth of streaming piracy requires coordination among all parties in a position to make a difference, including .... civil and criminal actions against creators of pirate add-on software and the repository web sites that host them, against distributors of the preloaded devices, and against the entities streaming the content," the Motion Picture Association of America says in a filing submitted last week to the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration. "We would welcome the NTIA’s voice in urging its sister agencies to bring criminal actions, as well as its consulting with the Customs and Border Patrol about the possibility of interdiction of illicit streaming devices entering the country from abroad."

The filing comes in response to the NTIA's call for comments about internet policy issues.

The MPAA, which has long fought online piracy, is now calling particular attention to "preloaded streaming device piracy" -- meaning set-top boxes that use open-source software (usually Kodi) and come with add-ons that allow consumers to easily stream unlicensed material.

"To an average consumer, the experience is not dissimilar to using a legitimate streaming product, such as an AppleTV or Roku box, except the content has been stolen," the MPAA writes.

In the last year, a consortium of companies including Amazon, Netflix and Hollywood studios have sued three companies offering over-the-top devices that allegedly facilitate piracy -- TickBox, Dragon and Set TV. Those cases are pending in front of U.S. District Court Judge Michael Fitzgerald in Los Angeles.

The MPAA says that civil suits are "impactful," but that criminal cases "have a larger deterrent value, and thus would be even more effective at mitigating the problem."

The motion picture group also suggested that the NTIA could examine whether the FTC can prosecute distributors for fraud, based on their representations that the devices are legal.

In May, Federal Communications Commissioner Mike O'Rielly asked Amazon and eBay to crack down on "rogue" set-top-box sellers that enable consumers to stream pirated shows. Both companies had already taken steps to prevent the same of some devices that enable piracy, but O'Rielly said those steps were not entirely successful.

The MPAA -- which has frequently been at odds with Google -- also questioned whether tech companies facilitate "harmful and even illegal behavior, including phishing and fraud, malware, cyber-espionage, identity theft and theft of intellectual property, unlawful sale of opioids and other drugs, and trafficking of minors."

The organization suggested the Communications Decency Act -- which generally immunizes Google, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms from liability for users' activity -- contributes to problematic content online.

"Online platforms have much less incentive to take harm-mitigating steps common to most other businesses," the MPAA writes. "It is not surprising then that online, where there is less threat of liability, we now have a problem. The lack of accountability for product design and commercial practices, and many platforms’ views that bad actors abusing their services are 'not their problem to solve,' are common denominators exacerbating the extent to which the list of ills is growing unchecked on the web."

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