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Peer-To-Peer News - The Week In Review - August 28th, ’21
August 28th, 2021
Hollywood Movies Flood Piracy Sites Hours after Release
Bootlegging and sharing high-quality digital copies of movies is easier than ever, as studios leaned harder into streaming during pandemic
Millions of people are watching high-quality, pirated online versions of Hollywood’s top movies sooner than ever after their releases, undermining potential ticket sales and subscriber growth as the industry embraces streaming.
Copies of several of the year’s most popular films, from “The Suicide Squad" and “Godzilla vs. Kong" to “Jungle Cruise" and “Black Widow," shot up almost immediately after their premieres to the top of the most-downloaded charts on piracy websites such as the Pirate Bay and LimeTorrents, according to piracy-tracking organizations.
“Black Widow" was the most pirated movie world-wide for three consecutive weeks after its July 9 release, according to TorrentFreak, a site that monitors pirating activity, while copies of “Jungle Cruise" proliferated across the internet just hours after its digital premiere later that same month.
The speed of access to illegal, DVD-quality copies of new movies is a recent phenomenon. Previously, high-quality duplicates mostly hit piracy sites months after a film’s theatrical release. Sometimes poor-quality versions could be downloaded, but they were often created by people in theaters filming with camcorders or cellphones, and many deemed them unwatchable.
Piracy experts and theater executives say the proliferation of higher-quality illegal copies becoming available sooner threatens revenue that studios and streaming services could be collecting at box offices and by adding subscribers.
Of the 20 most pirated films on the Pirate Bay on a recent Tuesday in August, 12 had premiered on studio streaming services. Warner Bros.’ “The Suicide Squad" was No. 1, followed by HBO Max’s “Friends" reunion.
Walt Disney Co.’s “Black Widow," “Cruella" and “Jungle Cruise"—all offerings on the company’s Disney+ streaming service—were in the top 10, not far above Disney’s “Luca," Universal Pictures’ “Boss Baby" sequel, Paramount+’s “Infinite" and four Warner Bros. titles that all premiered on HBO Max.
Although film-industry and piracy experts say it is difficult to track how studios’ newly adopted digital-distribution strategies have affected the overall volume of piracy, data show that the pandemic sparked an increase.
“We started to see a massive uptick when lockdowns started," said Andy Chatterley, chief executive of piracy tracker Muso, which even found a surge in piracy among family titles such as Paramount Pictures’ “Sonic the Hedgehog" when children started staying home from school in March 2020.
“Netflix without a password" is how TorrentFreak’s founder, who goes by the name Ernesto Van Der Sar, describes the illegal sites.
Actress Scarlett Johansson and her team cited piracy concerns as a reason they wanted to avoid putting out “Black Widow" on Disney+ simultaneously, according to a person familiar with the matter. It was one dispute that contributed to a breakdown in negotiations over the star’s pay, which led Ms. Johansson to sue the studio earlier this month.
Theater owners’ suspicions about “Black Widow" piracy arose when the movie’s opening-weekend total failed to match expectations based on well-attended Thursday-night preview screenings. Executives can typically predict how a movie will do based on early ticket sales, but "Black Widow" experienced a bigger-than-expected decline night-over-night as pirated copies proliferated, according to piracy tracking sites.
Disney and AT&T Inc.’s Warner Bros. declined to comment. Universal and Paramount didn’t respond to requests for comment. Studios typically operate internal units that track when content is pirated and ask bootleg links to be removed. They also fund antipiracy advocacy groups that cooperate with law enforcement and lobby policy makers to tighten regulation and penalties.
Major 2021 releases have experienced a high degree of piracy, even when they have performed well in theaters. Warner Bros.’ “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It" grossed, globally, a respectable $201.4 million in theaters but was also the most-pirated movie in the world in June, according to Muso, with 9.2 million illegal streams, of which more than 1.1 million were in the U.S.
Despite the piracy, streaming strategies have paid off during the pandemic. Wall Street cheered subscriber growth for Disney+, Netflix and HBO Max as most U.S. theaters remained closed.
In many cases, the most pirated films were released online and in movie theaters simultaneously, and the bootlegging reduced what studios might have made, not only at the box office but also from new subscription sign-ups—potentially driven by new film releases—or from the extra fees streaming services sometimes charge for watching new movies, say executives and piracy experts.
Stay-at-home orders drove the practice, with sites that hosted illegal movies and television shows drawing more than 137 billion visits last year, according to the Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment, an advocacy group funded by media companies including Hollywood studios. Pre-pandemic, the global box office generated about $40 billion in revenue annually.
Behind the scenes, movie producers, executives and stars are airing concerns about the problem.
Earlier this year, the high volume of global piracy of “Godzilla vs. Kong" surprised executives at its studio, Warner Bros., according to people familiar with the matter. People illegally streamed the movie over 34 million times, according to Muso.
When Disney released “Jungle Cruise," starring Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, on Disney+, a community of tens of thousands of people were both “seeding"—meaning sharing an illegal copy—and “leeching"—downloading the film free—within less than a day of its release, according to piracy tracking sites. Disney, which charged Disney+ users an extra $30 to watch the movie on the platform, said it grossed $30 million from subscribers on the film’s opening weekend.
“Pirates behave like consumers do," said Carnegie Mellon University professor and piracy expert Michael D. Smith. “If you make it sufficiently hard for them to get something free, they’ll pay for it."
Streaming technology has improved the quality of pirated content. People can either download near-perfect versions of a movie, using special files called torrents, or stream bootleg copies online. Culprits and sites that get caught are quickly supplanted by new ones, says Prof. Smith.
A streaming-first Hollywood has also allowed subtitled copies to be shared almost instantaneously. In the past, overseas audiences typically struggled to obtain high-quality, subtitled releases. Now, Disney+ and HBO Max can offer movies and TV shows in more than a dozen languages—providing illegal downloaders ready-made versions for foreign audiences.
Disney+ isn’t available in China and “Black Widow" wasn’t released there, but avid Marvel fan Kevin He, a 25-year-old student in Beijing, managed to watch it by downloading a high-quality, 4K version almost immediately after the film’s U.S. premiere.
After finding links for the movie on an online forum known as Douban, Mr. He says he located several copies of “Black Widow" reproduced at various levels of quality. The version he downloaded didn’t include Chinese subtitles, but he says he easily found some to graft onto his bootlegged copy.
Mr. He also said he found links to “WandaVision" and “Loki"—two Marvel series both streamed on Disney+—by searching on Baidu, a Chinese search engine.
Rich Gelfond, chief executive of theater chain IMAX Corp., says an increase in pirating and declining revenues could have a lasting impact on Hollywood. “It will limit how great content is made and distributed," he said.
While it isn’t known exactly how much piracy has shaped studios’ decisions, some are revisiting online release strategies crafted in the past year.
Earlier this month, AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc., the nation’s biggest theater chain, said it had struck a deal with Warner Bros. for next year, guaranteeing the studio’s films would enjoy 45 days of theatrical exclusivity before moving online. The agreement backtracked on an existing simultaneous-release strategy.
Disney has said it would continue to release films both online and in theaters, deciding the details on a film-by-film basis. Its next Marvel film, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" will be in theaters only.
TSMC Hikes Chip Prices up to 20% Amid Supply Shortage
Taiwanese company faces earnings pressure with plans for overseas plants
Contract chipmaking giant Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. told clients Wednesday that it plans to raise prices on products by as much as 20%, in what would be the company's steepest single increase.
The price increases and the time frames for the hikes differ depending on the client, according to reports by Taiwan's Liberty Times newspaper and other media outlets. For some companies that received TSMC's notice, the hikes took effect immediately.
TSMC and other Taiwanese semiconductor companies raised chip prices by more than 10% between last fall and this spring. But with strong demand continuing to outstrip supply, TSMC decided to sharply increase prices again.
The increased costs tied to ramping up production are being passed downstream, with the company enjoying better bargaining power amid the global chip crunch as well.
This move likely will impact the sticker prices of end products. A TSMC spokesperson declined to comment to Nikkei about the higher chip prices.
Concerns over lower profitability are another reason behind the price hikes. The company has said it will make $100 billion in capital investments over three years through 2023. That commitment has fueled qualms about a potential decline in profits as TSMC prepares to boost its overseas expansion.
TSMC still maintained a high net profit margin of 36% during the quarter ended in June.
At the same time, "it will be very costly to manufacture in the U.S. and Japan," a member of the TSMC executive team said. The company is building a cutting-edge semiconductor facility in the U.S. state of Arizona and is considering opening its first Japanese chip plant in Kumamoto.
Major global clients such as Toyota Motor have announced production cutbacks due to the shortage of semiconductors. TSMC has responded by boosting output, but the company foresees the impact lasting until next year.
Apple Reportedly Increasing iPhone 13 Prices to Compensate for Increased Chip Production Cost
Apple is reportedly planning to increase the price of the upcoming iPhone 13 series as a way to compensate for the increased costs of chip production from its leading chip supplier TSMC, according to a report from DigiTimes.
According to the report, TSMC is planning to increase the costs of its chip production, impacting several customers, including Apple. TSMC is reportedly looking to increase its costs by as much as 20% for its "advanced and mature process technologies." The new changes are expected to go into effect in January.
TSMC has reportedly notified customers of price increases by as much as 20% for its advanced and mature process technologies, with the new prices set to be effective starting January 2022. The price adjustments will also be for the orders scheduled to be fulfilled starting December.
For TSMC's advanced sub-7nm process technologies, quotes will rise by 3-10%, the sources indicated. Apple, the biggest client of TSMC with its orders accounting for over 20% of the foundry's total wafer revenue, will experience a 3-5% price hike, the sources said.
As a way to compensate for the increase of the costs, Apple is reportedly eyeing to increase the costs of the upcoming iPhone 13 series to "mitigate the impact of rising costs on their profitability."
While facing rising production costs, brand vendors may end up passing the costs onto end-market customers, the observers said.
Apple is likely to set higher prices for its upcoming iPhone and other series, according to market sources. Multiple notebook brand vendors, which have raised their prices by 5-10% so far this year, continue to explore ways to mitigate the impact of rising costs on their profitability.
Apple this year is preparing some considerable improvements for the iPhone 13, including features specifically designed for professional photographers and videographers. On the higher-end models of the upcoming lineup, Apple is rumored to be adding support for ProRes for videos and portrait mode videos. Apple may see both of these features as justification for an increase in price on its most premium iPhones.
Apple is expected to hold an all-digital event which will include the announcement of the iPhone 13 and Apple Watch Series 7 in just a few weeks. To catch up on everything we know about the upcoming iPhones, be sure to check out our comprehnsive guide.
California's 'Open Access' Fiber Broadband Plan Is Making Telecom Giants Like AT&T Nervous
Back in 2009, the FCC funded a Harvard study that concluded (pdf) that open access broadband networks (letting multiple ISPs come in and compete over a central, core network) resulted in lower broadband prices and better service in numerous locations worldwide. Of course when the Obama FCC released its "National Broadband Plan" back in 2010, this realization (not to mention an honest accounting of the sector's limited competition) was nowhere to be found. Both parties ignored the data and instead doubled down on our existing national telecom policy plan: letting AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast do pretty much whatever they'd like. Something, of course, taken to ridiculous new heights during the Trump era.
Since then, "open access" has become somewhat of a dirty word in telecom policy, and even companies like Google Fiber -- which originally promised to adhere to the concept on its own network before quietly backpedaling -- are eager to pretend the idea doesn't exist. Why? Because having ISPs compete in layers over a centralized network may improve service, boost speeds, and reduce prices (see: this community-run network in Ammon, Idaho), but it would eat into the revenues of the regional monopolies bone-grafted to our intelligence gathering apparatus, and you simply can't have that.
Which is why it was surprising to see California recently pass a $6 billion broadband infrastructure bill that does something unique: it mandates the creation of a massive "middle mile" fiber network that will be open access, which should encourage increased competition. The original announcement breaks down the spending this way:
• $3.25 billion to build, operate and maintain an open access, state-owned middle mile network – high-capacity fiber lines that carry large amounts of data at higher speeds over longer distances between local networks.
• $2 billion to set up last-mile broadband connections that will connect homes and businesses with local networks. The legislation expedites project deployment and enables Tribes and local governments to access this funding.
• $750 million for a loan loss reserve fund to bolster the ability of local governments and nonprofits to secure financing for broadband infrastructure.
That's a lot of money that could be potentially going somewhere other than entrenched telecom giants like AT&T and Comcast. That means increased competition, something AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and others fight tooth and nail (rather successfully) to avoid. You can tell AT&T in particular is nervous about it, because the new bill's passage forced the company to recently launch this silly astroturf website claiming to represent "Californians for broadband equity." The website is chock full of stock photos of children, and lots of empty lip service to "fixing the digital divide":
Only if you look at some of the materials posted in the page's resources section do you see the site is backed by AT&T and Frontier Communications.
To be very clear, dominant regional monopolies in California like AT&T and Frontier love the decades-old US telecom policy approach to broadband. Namely, throw billions of dollars in tax breaks and subsidies at incumbent monopolies, which then fail to deliver what was promised, refuse to give back the money, and then pretend they're not part of the problem.
There's an entire universe of AT&T-linked orgs and individuals that suffer an absolute embolism anytime taxpayer resources are used to build local community broadband efforts. But those same groups and individuals are nowhere to be found every time AT&T gets a $42 billion tax cut for doing absolutely nothing. Or gets billions in subsidies and regulatory favors in exchange for fiber networks that are always, mysteriously, half deployed.
In short, AT&T and Frontier want the focus to remain exclusively on giving them yet more money to shore up access in areas they've neglected for years. What they don't want is any money going toward competition within their existing footprint. Despite the fact that high prices due to limited competition are one of the highest barriers to access for many communities (something particularly pronounced during COVID). US broadband is expensive and mediocre thanks to regional monopolization and the state/federal corruption that protects it. There's a lot of time and money spent trying to ignore or deny that fact.
If you didn't understand this context you might stumble into this new AT&T website thinking it's a well intentioned group just super interested in helping poor toddlers get broadband. But it's really just incumbent monopolies trying to ensure more of California's new broadband budget goes to them, and less goes to pesky competitors that might force them to (gasp) compete on price. Should AT&T and Comcast not get their adequate slice of California's planned broadband budget, you can expect a lot more lobbying and policy theatrics of this sort in the fall.
A Bad Solar Storm Could Cause an 'Internet Apocalypse'
The undersea cables that connect much of the world would be hit especially hard by a coronal mass ejection.
Lily Hay Newman
Scientists have known for decades that an extreme solar storm, or coronal mass ejection, could damage electrical grids and potentially cause prolonged blackouts. The repercussions would be felt everywhere from global supply chains and transportation to internet and GPS access. Less examined until now, though, is the impact such a solar emission could have on internet infrastructure specifically. New research shows that the failures could be catastrophic, particularly for the undersea cables that underpin the global internet.
At the SIGCOMM 2021 data communication conference on Thursday, Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi of the University of California, Irvine presented “Solar Superstorms: Planning for an Internet Apocalypse,” an examination of the damage a fast-moving cloud of magnetized solar particles could cause the global internet. Abdu Jyothi's research points out an additional nuance to a blackout-causing solar storm: the scenario where even if power returns in hours or days, mass internet outages persist.
There's some good news up front. Abdu Jyothi found that local and regional internet infrastructure would be at low risk of damage even in a massive solar storm, because optical fiber itself isn't affected by geomagnetically induced currents. Short cable spans are also grounded very regularly. But for long undersea cables that connect continents, the risks are much greater. A solar storm that disrupted a number of these cables around the world could cause a massive loss of connectivity by cutting countries off at the source, even while leaving local infrastructure intact. It would be like cutting flow to an apartment building because of a water main break.
“What really got me thinking about this is that with the pandemic we saw how unprepared the world was. There was no protocol to deal with it effectively and it’s the same with internet resilience,” Abdu Jyothi told WIRED ahead of her talk. “Our infrastructure is not prepared for a large-scale solar event. We have very limited understanding of what the extent of the damage would be.”
That information gap mostly comes from lack of data. Severe solar storms are so rare that there are only three main examples to go off of in recent history. Large events in 1859 and 1921 demonstrated that geomagnetic disturbances can disrupt electrical infrastructure and communication lines like telegraph wires. During the massive 1859 “Carrington Event,” compass needles swung wildly and unpredictably, and the aurora borealis was visible at the equator in Colombia. But those geomagnetic disturbances occurred before modern electric grids were established. A moderate-severity solar storm in 1989 knocked out Hydro-Québec's grid and caused a nine-hour blackout in northeast Canada, but that too occurred before the rise of modern internet infrastructure.
Though they don't happen often, coronal mass ejections are a real threat to internet resilience, says Abdu Jyothi. And after three decades of low solar storm activity, she and other researchers point out that the probability of another incident is rising.
Undersea internet cables are potentially susceptible to solar storm damage for a few reasons. To shepherd data across oceans intact, cables are fitted with repeaters at intervals of roughly 50 to 150 kilometers depending on the cable. These devices amplify the optical signal, making sure that nothing gets lost in transit, like a relay throw in baseball. While fiber optic cable isn't directly vulnerable to disruption by geomagnetically induced currents, the electronic internals of repeaters are—and enough repeater failures will render an entire undersea cable inoperable. Additionally, undersea cables are only grounded at extended intervals hundreds or thousands of kilometers apart, which leaves vulnerable components like repeaters more exposed to geomagnetically induced currents. The composition of the sea floor also varies, possibly making some grounding points more effective than others.
On top of all of this, a major solar storm could also knock out any equipment that orbits the Earth that enables services like satellite internet and global positioning.
“There are no models currently available of how this could play out,” Abdu Jyothi says. “We have more understanding of how these storms would impact power systems, but that's all on land. In the ocean it's even more difficult to predict.”
Coronal mass ejections tend to have more impact at higher latitudes, closer to the Earth's magnetic poles. That's why Abdu Jyothi worries more about cables in some regions than others. She found, for example, that Asia faces less risk, because Singapore acts as a hub for many undersea cables in the region and is at the equator. Many cables in that region are also shorter, because they branch in many directions from that hub rather than being set up as one continuous span. Cables that cross the Atlantic and Pacific oceans at high latitude would be at greater risk from even moderate storms.
The global internet is built for resilience. If one pathway isn't available, traffic reroutes across other paths, a property that could potentially keep connectivity up, even at reduced speeds, in the event of a solar storm. But enough damage to these vital arteries would start to destabilize the network. And depending on where the cable outages occur, Abdu Jyothi says that foundational data routing systems like the Border Gateway Protocol and Domain Name System could start to malfunction, creating knock-on outages. It's the internet version of the traffic jams that would happen if road signs disappeared and traffic lights went out at busy intersections across a major city.
North America and some other regions have minimum standards and procedures for grid operators related to solar storm preparedness. And Thomas Overbye, director of the Smart Grid Center at Texas A&M University, says that grid operators have made some progress mitigating the risk over the past 10 years. But he emphasizes that since geomagnetic disturbances are so rare and relatively unstudied, other threats from things like extreme weather events or cyberattacks are increasingly taking priority.
“Part of the problem is we just don’t have a lot of experience with the storms,” Overbye says. “There are some people who think a geomagnetic disturbance would be a catastrophic scenario and there are others who think it would be less of a major event. I’m kind of in the middle. I think it’s something that we certainly as an industry want to be prepared for and I’ve been working to develop tools that assess risk. But yet there are a lot of other things going on in the industry that are important, too.”
The internet infrastructure side contains even more unknowns. Abdu Jyothi emphasizes that her study is just the beginning of much more extensive interdisciplinary research and modeling that needs to be done to fully understand the scale of the threat. While severe solar storms are extremely rare, the stakes are perilously high. A prolonged global connectivity outage of that scale would impact nearly every industry and person on Earth.
How Data Brokers Sell Access to the Backbone of the Internet
ISPs are quietly distributing "netflow" data that can, among other things, trace traffic through VPNs.
There's something of an open secret in the cybersecurity world: internet service providers quietly give away detailed information about which computer is communicating with another to private businesses, which then sells access to that data to a range of third parties, according to multiple sources in the threat intelligence industry.
The information, known as netflow data, is a useful tool for digital investigators. They can use it to identify servers being used by hackers, or to follow data as it is stolen. But the sale of this information still makes some people nervous because they are concerned about whose hands it may fall into.
"I'm concerned that netflow data being offered for commercial purposes is a path to a dark fucking place," one source familiar with the data told Motherboard. Motherboard granted multiple sources anonymity to speak more candidly about industry issues.
At a high level, netflow data creates a picture of traffic flow and volume across a network. It can show which server communicated with another, information that may ordinarily only be available to the server owner or the ISP carrying the traffic. Crucially, this data can be used for, among other things, tracking traffic through virtual private networks, which are used to mask where someone is connecting to a server from, and by extension, their approximate physical location.
Team Cymru, one threat intelligence firm, works with ISPs to access that netflow data, three sources said. Keith Chu, communications director for the office of Senator Ron Wyden which has been conducting its own investigations into the sale of sensitive data, added that Team Cymru told the office "it obtains netflow data from third parties in exchange for threat intelligence."
Companies that may source Team Cymru's data include cybersecurity firms hired to respond to data breaches or proactively hunt out hackers. On its website, Team Cymru says it works with both public and private sector teams to "to help identify, track and stop bad actors both in cyber space and on the ground."
"I'm less worried about a bad guy hacker and more worried about a bad guy government or company or politician," one source familiar with the data said. A source in the threat intelligence industry added that they "always thought it was kinda bonkers," referring to Team Cymru's sale of netflow data.
The continued sale of sensitive data could present its own privacy and security concerns, and the news highlights that ISPs are providing this data at scale to third parties likely without the informed consent of their own users. Other companies, such as cybersecurity firm Palo Alto Networks, also have access to netflow data.
"The users almost certainly don't [know]" their data is being provided to Team Cymru, who then sells access to it, the source familiar with the data said.
Team Cymru's customers can probe a dataset, and "effectively run queries against virtually any IP to pull the netflows to and from that IP over a given point in time," one of the sources said. Chu added Team Cymru said it "restricts the amount of data that is returned, so that only a small portion of the netflow data in its database can be accessed by any one client."
In product descriptions, Team Cymru offers users the ability to follow traffic through VPNs, which attackers may use to cover their tracks or ordinary people to browse the internet more privately.
"Trace malicious activity through a dozen or more proxies and VPNs to identify the origin of a cyber threat," one brochure for a Team Cymru product called Pure Signal Recon reads. In essence, access to netflow data lets a security team observe what is happening on the wider internet, and may indicate what is happening to other organizations, beyond the borders of their own network or company. One of the sources said they previously saw traffic from an organization they knew inside Team Cymru's dataset and was spooked by it at the time.
"Visibility and insight are global," the description adds. An image included in the brochure shows Team Cymru's product letting users trace the activity of servers linked to an Iranian hacking group further than other datasets, such as DNS lookups.
In a recent research report on an Israeli spyware vendor called Candiru, Citizen Lab thanked Team Cymru.
"Thanks to Team Cymru for providing access to their Pure Signal Recon product. Their tool’s ability to show Internet traffic telemetry from the past three months provided the breakthrough we needed to identify the initial victim from Candiru’s infrastructure," the report reads. Citizen Lab did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Team Cymru did not respond to multiple requests for comment on which ISPs provide it with the data, what privacy protections are in place around the collection and distribution of such data, and whether the individual ISP users have provided consent for their data to be shared.
For its Cortex Xpanse product, Palo Alto Networks also gains access to netflow data, according to product documentation available online.
"Cortex® Xpanse™ obtains flow data via multiple relationships with Tier 1 ISPs. Through these relationships, Cortex Xpanse has access to a sample of approximately 80% of global flows," one page reads.
Jim Finkle, director of threat communications at Palo Alto Networks, said in an emailed statement that "Palo Alto Networks provides enterprise customers with netflow data to and from their own networks to identify violations of security policies, gaps in security monitoring and other high-risk activity on the customer’s network." Palo Alto Networks declined to name which ISPs it sources data from, or whether it purchases the data outright from the ISPs.
Dave Schaeffer, CEO of ISP Cogent Communications, which he said handles around 22 percent of the world's internet traffic, told Motherboard that as an ISP his company doesn't provide their netflow data to anybody.
"Fundamentally, people have a right to some degree of anonymity, and as a carrier it's not our job to eavesdrop in any form," he said in a phone call. Schaeffer says Cogent generates 96 percent of its traffic from selling to large wholesale customers, such as Vodafone, Cox, Spectrum, and BT. Schaeffer says Cogent provides services to Team Cymru but does not share netflow data with the company.
"I don't know if there's a lot of really useful things people could do with [netflow] data," he added. "There's probably some bad things I could think of if that data was available."
Although multiple sources were concerned about the sale of netflow data, several of them stressed that Team Cymru is a responsible organization.
"It's pretty shadowy but honestly they're a 'good actor,'" one in the threat intelligence industry said. "Very strict protections on who can see it, but still, yeah, it's shady."
The source familiar with the data said they were concerned about the sale of netflow data, but that Team Cymru "also enable security organizations to do some really awesome work. So I'm conflicted about it."
In May, Motherboard reported that Senator Wyden's office asked the Department of Defense (DoD), which includes various military and intelligence agencies such as the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), for detailed information on its data purchasing practices. The response showed that the Pentagon is carrying out warrantless surveillance of Americans, according to a subsequent letter written by Wyden and obtained by Motherboard.
Some of the answers the DoD provided were provided in a form meaning that Wyden's office could not legally publish specifics on the surveillance. Wyden's office then asked the DoD to release the information to the public. At the time, Wyden's office declined to provide Motherboard with specifics on one of the answers which was classified, but a Wyden aide said that the question related to the DoD buying internet metadata.
"Are any DoD components buying and using without a court order internet metadata, including 'netflow' and Domain Name System (DNS) records," the question read.
Other cybersecurity firms sell access to controversial datasets. In September, Motherboard reported how one firm called HYAS was sourcing smartphone location data to trace people to their "doorstep." As Motherboard has repeatedly shown, the ordinary apps installed on peoples' phones that gather this information often don't have informed consent to then sell or otherwise provide it to third parties.
How OnlyFans Became the Latest Casualty of the War on Porn
Last week, the paid subscription platform OnlyFans announced it was cracking down on the very content that built its business: pornography. The news, first reported by Bloomberg’s Lucas Shaw, created an infinite scroll of jokes on social media, but also a great deal of outrage and distress among the two million people for whom the platform had become a source of income. “OnlyFans is how I pay my rent,” one OnlyFans creator told The Times. “I feed myself from this.”
Pornography has been a subject of sustained national debate since the 1960s, but the battle lines have shifted and blurred over the decades: In the wake of the #MeToo movement, many liberals are now taking a closer look at the ubiquity of online porn and its treatment of women. At the same time, social media has given pornography and its creators a larger platform than they’ve ever had before.
Is pornography a vice to be regulated, or is it a kind of speech to be left largely alone? And what does the answer mean for the people whose livelihoods depend on it? Here’s what people are saying.
The new war on porn
After the sexual revolution, pornography became a central preoccupation of the American right, at one point even more so than abortion and homosexuality. “Smut,” President Richard Nixon said in 1970, “should not be simply contained at its present level; it should be outlawed in every state in the Union.”
The cause found willing recruits in Christian conservatives like Jerry Falwell, but also in influential feminists on the left like the legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon and the activist and writer Andrea Dworkin. Dworkin believed that pornography constituted a violation of women’s civil rights: “Every rule of sexual abuse, every nuance of sexual sadism, every highway and byway of sexual exploitation, is encoded in it,” she wrote.
But by the end of the 1980s, the movement to censor pornography had foundered on First Amendment grounds, and American culture had largely moved on too. “High heels, lipstick and sex positivity were in,” Moira Donegan wrote for Bookforum in 2019. “Dworkin — and her gruesome, angry characterization of sexual violence — was decidedly out.”
In recent years, however, the proliferation of pornography online has revived interest in its regulation. As Maggie Jones wrote for The Times Magazine in 2018, pornography is now the de facto sex educator for American youth, prompting concern that internet-native generations are being taught ideas about heterosexual sex that are unrealistic at best and violently misogynistic at worst. (For gay and bisexual youth, Jones noted, studies show that pornography can be a source of affirmation.)
There is little research on what children are watching and whether it affects their behavior. “But you don’t have to believe that porn leads to sexual assault or that it’s creating a generation of brutal men to wonder how it helps shape how teenagers talk and think about sex and, by extension, their ideas about masculinity, femininity, intimacy and power,” Jones wrote.
Online pornography has drawn the strictest scrutiny for how it facilitates the abuse of women and girls. Within the past 10 years, nearly every state has criminalized “revenge porn,” the nonconsensual sharing of sexually explicit photos or videos. Revenge porn primarily affects women, as Rebekah Wells wrote for The Times in 2019, and it can devastate the health and long-term financial prospects of its victims.
Last year, The Times columnist Nicholas Kristof detailed how pornography sites profit off this and other forms of abuse. One of the most-visited pornography websites, Pornhub, attracts 3.5 billion visits a month, more than Netflix or Amazon, and it’s “infested with rape videos,” he wrote. “It monetizes child rapes, revenge pornography, spy cam videos of women showering, racist and misogynist content, and footage of women being asphyxiated in plastic bags.”
Shortly after that column’s publication, Discover, Mastercard and Visa suspended payments to Pornhub. Mastercard later announced new rules for banks that process payments to sellers of adult content: Starting in October, sites will have to verify the age and identity of anyone who is depicted in or uploads adult content, institute a pre-publication content review system, and offer speedy complaint resolutions and appeals.
These rule changes appear to have played a key role in OnlyFans’s recent ban. In a statement, the company said the move was made “to comply with the requests of our banking partners and payout providers.”
Why porn creators and free speech groups are pushing back
While the porn industry surely plays a role in facilitating sexual and economic exploitation, many performers reject the narrative that it’s a root cause of sex trafficking. Alana Evans, the head of the Adult Performers Actors Guild, notes in The Daily Beast that, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Pornhub’s parent company, which owns several other popular porn sites, accounted for 13,229 reports of “child sexual abuse material” in 2020; Facebook, on the other hand, accounted for 20.3 million — nearly 95 percent of all such reports. The majority of online recruitment in active sex trafficking cases in 2020 also occurred on Facebook, according to the Human Trafficking Institute.
So why the focus on pornography sites? In The New Republic, Melissa Gira Grant argues that pornography is just the latest target of Christian conservative organizations engaged in a “holy war” against what they see as America’s moral decay. Concerns about sex trafficking, she writes, offer a way for such groups — like Morality in the Media, an anti-porn organization founded in the 1960s that in 2015 rebranded itself as the National Center on Sexual Exploitation — to cast their mission as one of social justice.
For Mickelwait and Exodus Cry, pressuring credit cards companies out of business with the businesses that sex workers rely on (OnlyFans, Pornhub, Backpage) is a win because it’s proof they can exercise influence over major institutions in all of our lives pic.twitter.com/dCZ2n67D42
— Melissa Gira Grant (on book leave) (@melissagira) August 23, 2021
Many pornography creators say the intensifying crackdown will only put them at greater personal and financial risk. “Companies like Mastercard are now accomplices in the disenfranchisement of millions of sex workers, complicit in pushing workers away from independence into potentially more dangerous and exploitative conditions,” the Free Speech Coalition, a trade association for the adult entertainment industry, said in a statement.
The paradox is especially bitter when it comes to OnlyFans, which took power and money away from studios and sites like Pornhub and put it into the hands of individual creators. When the pandemic hit, the platform also became a lifeline, offering countless performers a way to earn income in the safety of their own homes.
Prohibition only pushes sex workers to the margins, to be less safe, more exposed to violence and exploitation. It does not stop trafficking and abuse. It further conceals it and exposes unrecognized workers to further criminalization, erasure, fear and persecution
— María Riot (@riotmaria) August 20, 2021
As Charlotte Shane writes in The Times Magazine, OnlyFans has its faults: The company takes a 20 percent cut of earnings, and while some performers rake in millions of dollars, “a vast majority are lucky if they see a few hundred.” And though the company has a policy of barring minors and blocking posts containing sexual assault, violence or bestiality, a recent investigation by the BBC found enforcement lax.
On the whole, however, “Direct-to-consumer sites like OnlyFans have been a boon to workers in significant ways,” Heather Berg, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis and author of “Porn Work,” told Shane. One of the best measures of that, Berg said, is that traditional porn managers are really angry about their existence.
On top of its consequences for porn creators, OnlyFans’s decision raises important questions about the power that payment processors have over online speech. “Who gets to decide what stays and goes on the internet?” asks Protocol’s Issie Lapowsky. In the case of OnlyFans, “The answer as to who’s calling the shots appears to be Visa and Mastercard.” Comparisons have been drawn to the content moderation regimes of social media giants like Facebook, but Lapowsky notes that the stakes are in some ways higher when it comes to credit-card companies because their policy decisions cut across industries.
It’s now been 4 days since @instagram deleted my account because I shared my own article about @OnlyFans. A very small window into what SWs (and many other creators) have to deal with on a daily basis.
— Lucas Shaw (@Lucas_Shaw) August 23, 2021
Can porn be reformed? Does it need to be?
Today, you can still find plenty of conservatives who believe, as Nixon, MacKinnon and Dworkin did, that porn should be outlawed. One of them is The Times columnist Ross Douthat, who wrote in 2018 that pornographic education produces a kind of toxic male personality, “at once entitled and resentful, angry and undermotivated.” Banning porn, he argued, “would dramatically reduce its pedagogical role, its cultural normalcy, its power over libidos everywhere.”
As Douthat acknowledged, however, this is not a proposal that’s likely to win most Americans over. For one thing, whether porn cultivates harmful attitudes toward women — the “negative effects paradigm,” as academics call it — is still a live question: One 2019 study found that “porn superfans” actually held more progressive views of gender roles than the general U.S. public.
But even if you concede the problem of porn’s pedagogical influence, other ways of countering it besides prohibition have been proposed. One, as The Atlantic’s Elizabeth Bruenig has explored, is “porn literacy” instruction designed to help adolescents think more critically about pornography and how to consume it ethically. Bruenig, for her part, is skeptical that school educators are up to the task. And she’s not alone: The Oxford philosopher Amia Srinivasan has said that a superior sex education program would enlist sex workers themselves.
Industry exploitation is perhaps an even thornier issue to solve, but Shane says the answer is to give creators more power, not less. OnlyFans offered many women a way to control their labor and keep most of their income, she writes in The Cut. But “what the internet gave — easy and no-cost means of advertisement, better tools for screening clients, cheaper ways to record and distribute porn — the government, with the devastatingly effective propaganda arm of anti-sex-industry civilian coalitions, keeps taking away.”
OnlyFans Creators Will Not Be Deterred
After the platform’s announcement of a ban on explicit content, many of its stars are feeling the sting of being turned away by a business they helped build. But they’re moving on fast.
It is hard to overstate the degree to which OnlyFans reversed the general downward trajectory of being an adult entertainment performer.
Before the subscription service arrived in 2016, so-called tube sites — video platforms that aggregated stolen pornographic content, disseminated it for free, and sucked up revenue from banner and video ads — drove many of the biggest studios out of business.
The ones that remained went from paying top performers thousands of dollars per scene to, generally, a few hundred. For many, on-camera work became a promotional device for escorting, according to Brian Gross, an industry publicist whose clients have included the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo (think: CES for pornography) and Sasha Grey, an actress who bucked the trend with a starring role in a somewhat more mainstream movie directed by Steven Soderbergh.
OnlyFans’ clean, streamlined interface enabled individuals over the age of 18 to sell and buy monthly subscriptions to a feed of images and video too racy for Instagram. There, the power was in the hands of the people making their own work: A creator with a few thousand monthly subscribers could make upward of $25,000 a month posting content, all while retaining full ownership of those photos and films.
That was why an announcement from OnlyFans last Thursday that it will ban sexual activity completely starting in October led to some panic in the pornographic industry, said Mr. Gross. He added that among his clients, there was also palpable sadness that at a moment when there was increased respect and empathy for sex workers, a business they’d helped build was gearing up to cast them out in the cold.
“You have really successful hard working content creators who put in a lot of time effort and work and have a consumer at the other end who wants to purchase it,” Mr. Gross said. “You see article after article about how successful it is, and for some reason the outside world doesn’t want it recognized.”
That opinion seemed to gain traction on Friday when OnlyFans updated its terms of service to say that although nudity would still be allowed, even simulated masturbation was being banned.
But there remained a lot of confusion about whether that would be enforced.
Matthew Camp, a performer who posts gay pornographic content multiple times a week, said in an interview that he thought OnlyFans might just be making the announcement to pay lip service to credit card companies that have grown increasingly uncomfortable with processing pornography-related transactions. Performers may also be able to skirt the rules by sending racier material out via direct message in exchange for tips, which is already one of the site’s most profitable features.
Mr. Gross also questioned whether the genie could even be put back in the bottle since there are already a number of other sites that allow content creators to upload pornographic material.
Although OnlyFans has said it now has more than two million content creators, some of whom do not take their clothes off for a living, the speed at which it became the new center of the porn universe led others to believe that the attempt to bring it fully mainstream will simply facilitate its own demise.
‘Less Is More?’
Dannii Harwood became OnlyFans’ first content creator in 2016. She has since parlayed her on-camera work into running a management company with more than 200 OnlyFans creators as clients.
According to Ms. Harwood, Tim Stokely — the site’s founder — and his partners “didn’t have much choice” but to change the rules. Those credit card companies simply are too powerful, and although their growing hesitancy to process payments for pornography arguably plays into the hands of religious conservatives, there are other legitimate concerns: Consumers of porn are among the most likely to dispute transactions. Credit card companies also do not want to unwittingly process payments for material around which issues of consent later arise.
A representative for Mr. Stokely did not respond to a request for comment, but in an interview on Tuesday with The Financial Times, Mr. Stokely blamed the change entirely on the banks, saying that if the situation with them changed, the new prohibitions around sexual content would be lifted.
But, Ms. Harwood noted, many of OnlyFans’ most successful performers are not the ones who post sexually explicit content but the ones who master the art of “teasing and titillation.”
She herself never posted sex on her feed.
Instead, she began making upward of $50,000 a month from subscriptions and special requests, which cost extra. Men paid her to take on dares, like answering the door naked and driving around in her underwear.
Through direct messaging, she chatted with fans daily, learning their habits, their sexual predilections and their insecurities, becoming what she likes to call an “online girlfriend.”
“Once subscribers have seen everything they move on to the next creator. It’s been proven time and again with my girls,” she said Friday. “I am constantly telling them: ‘Less is more.’”
But Ms. Harwood did not deny that a number of regular pornographic actors would likely migrate to other sites.
The biggest of those sites is Justfor.fans, which, according to its founder, Dominic Ford, now has more than 14,000 verified creators, 2,000 of whom completed the sign-up process within hours of OnlyFans changing its terms of service.
In an interview, Mr. Ford, a 46-year-old former gay porn producer and actor, said the site was ready to bring in about $20 million in revenue this year. He would love to take the business OnlyFans now plans to reject.
But he faces his own hurdles. He is currently working through plans to require documentation for all performers, proving that they are of age and agreed not only to be filmed but to have it distributed.
“It’s a good thing,” he said, of making things more professional. “We had releases on every film I ever did.”
Still, he will have to hire people to process a lot of paperwork. It will be expensive.
Even running things like outdoor content creates headaches, because public sex is outlawed in many places and because bystanders may unwittingly wind up in the shots.
A number of industry players, including Mr. Gross, believe that cryptocurrency will provide a major workaround for skittish credit card companies. But the bulk of revenue for most online sites comes from automated, recurring subscriptions. And there is no way to execute those through most crypto payment systems. “There’s no pull mechanism in place,” Mr. Ford said.
For all these reasons, Ms. Harwood believes the move away from OnlyFans will be temporary, that it is already mainstreaming and will succeed at it.
In 2019, Beyoncé rapped about starting an OnlyFans page. “Saturday Night Live” spoofed it with a skit in which Kenan Thompson plays a mail man who gets laid off and starts his own feed. OnlyFans has already signed up people such as the boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. and the rapper Cardi B.
But Beyoncé has yet to make good on her lyrics’ suggestion. Cardi B’s feed has not been updated since October 2020. People who have started OnlyFans accounts to supplement their work in more conventional fields still fight to remain employed in those jobs when they are outed for running a paid subscription business for adult content. And Mr. Gross doubts that the site can grow by further marginalizing the very people who gave it success.
“Remember what happened to Tumblr?” he said, referring to its decision in 2018 to ban pornography. “It’s completely irrelevant.”
OnlyFans Drops Planned Porn Ban, Will Continue to Allow Sexually Explicit Content
OnlyFans dropped plans to ban pornography from its service, less than a week after the U.K. content-creator subscription site had announced the change citing the need to comply with policies of banking partners.
On Wednesday, the company said it “secured assurances necessary to support our diverse creator community,” suggesting that it has new agreements with banks to pay OnlyFans’ content creators, including those who share sexually explicit material.
“Thank you to everyone for making your voices heard. We have secured assurances necessary to support our diverse creator community and have suspended the planned October 1 policy change,” the company said in a tweet.
“OnlyFans stands for inclusion and we will continue to provide a home for all creators,” the company said.
An OnlyFans spokesperson declined to say which bank or banks it has new or renewed payment-processing agreements with. “The proposed Oct. 1, 2021 changes are no longer required due to banking partners’ assurances that OnlyFans can support all genres of creators,” the rep said.
So was this all much ado about nothing?
OnlyFans may have been able to resolve its conflict with banks, some of which had refused to do business with the site, by going public with the issue — and publicizing the large amount of money that flows through the site, on the order of $300 million in payouts per month.
OnlyFans founder and CEO Tim Stokely put the blame for the porn ban on banks in an interview with the Financial Times published Aug. 24, saying that banks including JP Morgan Chase, Bank of New York Mellon and the U.K.’s Metro Bank had cut off OnlyFans’ ability to pay creators.
The furious backlash among OnlyFans creators also certainly pushed the company to quickly resolve the problem. OnlyFans’ decision to ban porn had infuriated sex workers who have relied on the site to support themselves. In frustration, some adult creators had already nixed their OnlyFans pages and moved to alternate platforms.
Founded in 2016, the site claims to have more than 130 million registered users and over 2 million creators.
While OnlyFans grew to popularity largely based on its porn-friendly policy, the company has been looking to reach wider audiences. For example, this month it officially launched OFTV, a streaming app that excludes sexually explicit content, in part to obtain distribution on platforms that disallow porn. OFTV is available on Android, iOS, Apple TV, Roku, Amazon’s Fire TV, Android TV and Samsung Smart TVs.
OnlyFans has been able to attract some celebrities to its platform, with some of most popular OnlyFans accounts including Bhad Bhabie, Cardi B, Jordyn Woods, Bella Thorne, Amber Rose, Blac Chyna, Rubi Rose and Tana Mongeau.
Nirvana Baby Sues Band Alleging Child Pornography
The Opening Of ‘In Bloom The Nirvana Nevermind Exhibition’
Spencer Elden, now 30, is suing over the iconic Nevermind album art. Photo by Samir Hussein/Getty Images
The iconic nude baby photographed for the cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind album is all grown up and suing the band, alleging the image violates child pornography laws. Spencer Elden, now 30, is seeking $150,000 from each of 17 named defendants, including record executives, Nirvana band members, and Courtney Love, the former wife and executor of Kurt Cobain’s estate, according to Variety.
The lawsuit, a copy of which was obtained by Variety, claims that the defendants knowingly exploited young Elden to increase attention and boost sales.
“Defendants intentionally commercially marketed Spencer’s child pornography and leveraged the shocking nature of his image to promote themselves and their music at his expense,” reads the lawsuit. “Defendants used child pornography depicting Spencer as an essential element of a record promotion scheme commonly utilized in the music industry to get attention, wherein album covers posed children in a sexually provocative manner to gain notoriety, drive sales, and garner media attention, and critical reviews.”
As a result, the lawsuit contends that Elden “has suffered and will continue to suffer lifelong damages.”
Elden’s parents were paid $200 for the photo, but never signed a release authorizing its use, according to the lawsuit. In past interviews, Elden has expressed mixed feelings over the photo but had never described it as pornographic, according to Variety, while regularly celebrating its existence. Not only does he have a “Nevermind” tattoo emblazoned across his chest, he’s also recreated the pose on several occasions (always wearing a swimsuit) to mark the album’s major anniversaries.
Until next week,
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