|27-04-22, 06:53 AM||#1|
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Peer-To-Peer News - The Week In Review - April 30th, 22
April 30th, 2022
France Clamps Down on Illegal Streaming
Two of the biggest French download sites are closing their doors as the country cracks down on illegal streaming.
Zone-telechargement.cam, one of the biggest French download sites, and Tirexo, an illegal streaming platform, will cease to operate, Le Soir reports.
French authorities have embarked on a hunt for pirating sites in recent months and have increased the number of closures of illegal download sites in the country.
Now two of the biggest illegal platforms have gone offline, and are taking with them communities that are tired of having to find a new home each time.
Two major players are out of the game
Considered the biggest download site in 2016 with 3.7 million active users per month, Zone-telechargement was forced to close after the arrest of its three creators by French police.
Several attempts to replicate their services were created, until the opening of zone-telechargement.cam in August 2021, which presented itself as the true successor of the original.
Its creators have now chosen to shut it down again, though they did not explain why they decided to abandon everything.
“We have closed all old and new domains linked to our site. The site’s database will be completely destroyed. There will be no resumption of the site,” said the owners of Zone-telechargement.
Tirexo, an illegal streaming platform on which users could watch tens of thousands of films and series, has also shut down.
“The Tirexo adventure ends here. Thank you for everything,” their website announced.
“You can rage, yell, insult us (if we’re allowed to do that, I had to remove some comments, it hurt my heart), it won’t take away anything from what we’ve done for you and us so far. Bye.”
Tirexo will remain accessible for a few more days, its creators said.
Comcast and Charter Team Up in Hopes of Toppling Roku, Amazon Streaming Hardware
The two giant cable operators have announced a new joint venture
As the old saying goes, if you can’t beat ‘em, partner up with another overly powerful cable giant to give yourself a better shot. This morning, Comcast and Charter announced a new joint venture that will see the two companies teaming up to develop “a next-generation streaming platform on a variety of branded 4K streaming devices and smart TVs.” This new platform and the devices that run it will square off against Amazon, Roku, Google, Apple, and other established streaming hardware players.
The new venture is evenly divided between the two companies and is exclusively focused on streaming; it “does not involve the broadband or cable video businesses of either Comcast or Charter, which will remain independent.”
Comcast says its Flex streaming platform will serve as the foundation for what’s coming next. It’s also contributing “the retail business for XClass TVs and will contribute Xumo, a streaming service it acquired in 2020.” Comcast introduced its XClass TVs last year as an alternative to the many popular budget TVs that come preloaded with Roku, Amazon, or Google software. For its part, Charter — known better to many for its Spectrum brand — is kicking in $900 million over the course of several years.
Peacock will unsurprisingly be heavily featured on the upcoming software and slate of products. But customers will also have access to the wide app selection presently available on Flex, so all the heavy hitters like Netflix, Prime Video, Disney Plus, Hulu, HBO Max, Spotify, and others are covered.
Here’s how the new partners see their early strategy playing out:
“The XClass TVs will be available through national retail partners and potentially direct from Comcast and Charter to provide more customer choice. Xumo will continue to operate as a free global streaming service available through the joint venture’s products and third-party devices. Charter will offer the 4K streaming TV devices and voice remotes beginning in 2023. Comcast will continue to offer the Flex streaming platform as a streaming device and service to its customers.”
A unified effort from the No. 1 and second-largest cable operators in the United States means you’re likely to see an enormous retail and advertising presence for whatever products arise from this joint venture. And, with the potential for big profits, there’s ample reason for them to be aggressive.
More than one in every three smart TVs sold in the US and Canada last year was a Roku TV model. Amazon and Google are also finding success with their TV hardware partnerships. If Comcast and Charter can eat into that even just a little, the new joint venture will be off to a good start. But it’s no small challenge: Roku and Google TVs are offering better picture quality than ever before. They’re a proven, known quantity that consumers are familiar with.
Comcast and Charter note that “closing of the joint venture is subject to customary closing conditions.”
A Scrappier Model for Netflix Might Be More Sustainable
In the minutes after Netflix reported its quarterly earnings last week, the entire entertainment business had questions. Was that stock sell-off really happening? What did it mean for the industry’s pivot to streaming? And, of course, because this is Hollywood: Who was to blame?
Netflix, the great disrupter whose algorithms and direct-to-consumer platform have forced powerful media incumbents to rethink their economic models, now seems to need a big strategy change itself. The company lost 200,000 subscribers in the first three months of this year and expects to lose two million more in the current quarter. So now the tech Goliath and Wall Street darling is reckoning with the same age-old problem that Hollywood has grappled with since at least the era of the actual Warner brothers: how to make mainstream movies and television that its customers enjoy, at scale and for a reasonable price.
It got me thinking about the simple idea that my film and TV production company Blumhouse is built on: If you give artists a lot of creative freedom and a little money upfront but a big stake in the movie’s or TV show’s commercial success, more often than not the result will be both commercial (the filmmakers are incentivized to make films that will resonate with audiences) and artistically interesting (creative freedom!). This approach has yielded movies as varied as “Get Out” (made for $4.5 million, with worldwide box office receipts of more than $250 million), “Whiplash” (made for $3.3 million, winner of three Academy Awards), “The Invisible Man” (made for $7 million, earned more than $140 million) and “Paranormal Activity” (made for $15,000, grossed more than $190 million).
From the beginning, the most important strategy I used to convince artists to work with me was to make radically transparent deals: We usually paid the artists (“participants” in Hollywood lingo) the absolute minimum allowable by union contracts upfront, with the promise of healthy bonuses based on actual box office results — instead of the opaque “percentage points” that artists are usually offered. Anyone can see box office results immediately, so creators don’t quarrel with the payouts. In fact, when it comes time for an artist to collect a bonus based on box office receipts, I email a video clip of myself dropping the check off at FedEx to the recipient.
To be sure, the “Blumhouse model” was especially effective in the horror genre, where lower-budget production values can lend a feeling of scary realism to the stories. But I also noticed that other experiments in lower-budget, bet-on-yourself gambits were working: My friend the director Todd Phillips forfeited a large upfront salary for “The Hangover” and cast lesser-known actors (at the time) to make the film on a small budget (by studio standards), in exchange for a greater share of the profits. That deal worked out stunningly well for all parties involved when the film grossed almost half a billion dollars and spurred a three-part franchise. Similarly, the creative team behind “Deadpool” made that film for only $58 million — a bargain unheard-of in the glossy world of Marvel superhero flicks — and their conviction paid off with $783 million in box office receipts.
The Blumhouse model is just an exaggerated and more clear-cut version of the classic system of sharing in success — the same deal that the publishing industry offers with royalties and that traditional Hollywood studios always have used and still do. When the financial incentives of the people paying for the movies and TV shows are aligned with those of the creators, the overall system is much more cost-effective — and often the movies and TV shows are better.
So what does this have to do with Netflix and streaming? The streaming platforms have, until very recently, balked at any kind of visibility into the success of movies and TV on their platforms (though that could change at Netflix if it adds an advertising-supported tier). This is understandable: Having spent hundreds of millions of dollars building their algorithms and distribution platforms, and billions more licensing Hollywood’s movies and TV shows to draw subscribers, they absolutely have the right to protect that proprietary information.
But the system leaves creators with precious little visibility into whether their works succeed in drawing viewers. By typically paying an upfront flat fee, Netflix buys out the usual success-based incentive compensation (known as the “back end” in Hollywood). This effectively treats every creator as a part of a hit movie or TV show before the camera ever rolls. An actor who might typically make a million dollars upfront with a healthy back end if the film does well will instead get $3 million upfront and no back end participation. This system makes the business of movie and TV show producing very expensive.
As someone who has made both hits and flops, I’ve always thought it fundamentally unsustainable for a company to treat all participants as if they had made a hit before the project is even produced. But for years, Wall Street judged streaming media companies based on subscriber growth built with enormous amounts of content, all produced with the costly “buyout” model.
The streaming model has also intensified the competition for talent, which has made it more challenging for Blumhouse and the rest of the industry to be creative in the ways we structure our deals. Indeed, my film and TV production company has occasionally (and lucratively) abandoned our bet-on-ourselves principle for the streaming largess. Hey, if you can’t beat them, join them.
Last week’s media and tech stock plunge suggests that investors are starting to doubt whether the streaming industry’s enormous investment in content can keep bringing in new subscribers and retain existing ones in a more crowded field of competition. And it’s stunning evidence that in recent months Wall Street has begun to doubt whether the streamers’ growth can stay ahead of their astronomical costs. Netflix and other streamers have come to be seen less as tech companies and more as media companies, subject to the usual gravitational forces of the quality and cost of their filmed entertainment.
The streaming platforms should embrace one surefire way of controlling costs while increasing quality: Cut creators in financially on the direct results of their work. It’s not a radical idea. In fact, it’s a compensation strategy that tech companies have always embraced for their own employees by rewarding them with stock options, sometimes in lieu of huge salaries.
So, streamers: When creators set out to make TV shows and movies for you, give them a deal that pays them handsomely for success. And share the internal performance numbers that define that success. You will be able to pay less upfront and you will find an increase in the quality of the work. Be wary of those artists who would rather take the upfront compensation — it might mean they don’t wholeheartedly believe in the commercial value of what they are making. Yes, your hits will wind up being more expensive for you, after compensating all the participants. But your misses will cost a lot less — and I believe you will have fewer of them.
This will require a lot of trust and transparency. And not every artist or production house is in the financial position to forgo a healthy upfront fee for the possibility of making more down the road. But streamers might be surprised by how many of us are.
Whoever has the nerve and vision to undertake this alignment of incentives will be among the few winners of the streaming wars. It may be scary to be so transparent with internal numbers. But not as scary as being at the whim of Wall Street (or being trapped in a Blumhouse movie).
Black Widow: 40% of MCU Movie Views Came From Piracy
Piracy had a big impact on Black Widow as a new report finds almost as many people pirated the movie as those who went to the theaters to see it.
Almost half of the people who watched Black Widow saw it by pirating the film according to a new study. Black Widow was Marvel's grand return to theaters after COVID-19 had forced the studio to delay the release of the film from May 1, 2020, to July 9, 2021. With concerns over COVID-19 still being on studios' minds, the studio opted to release Black Widow on Disney+ through their Premier Access service the same day as theaters.
The decision was a controversial one, as it resulted in star Scarlett Johansson launching a high-profile lawsuit against Disney which resulted in the two settling out of court. While Black Widow made headlines for the biggest opening weekend at the time of the pandemic, the movie had a massive 67% drop in its second weekend. The film grossed $183 million domestically and $379 million worldwide, making it the lowest-grossing MCU film of 2021 worldwide behind Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings ($432 million), Eternals ($402 million), and Spider-Man: No Way Home ($1.8 billion).
The commercial viability of releasing a film theatrically and on a streaming service day and date has since been called into question, with Black Widow often used as an example. At CinemaCon, a graph shared during a presentation by Cinépolis shows that 40% of Black Widow's views came from piracy, while 18% came from Disney+ streaming. That 40% was almost identical to the film's theatrical statistic, which said 41% of people saw Black Widow in theaters. The graph can be seen below:
The numbers on Black Widow had already not looked good, as Disney said they estimated to have lost $600 million in piracy on the movie. With a clean version readily available the same day as theaters, a pirated copy of the film was easier to access and cheaper than the $30 dollar price tag for Premier Access. While Disney+ appears to have retired Premier Access, the studio still has sent some of their highest-profile movies straight to streaming for no additional cost like the latest Pixar film, Turning Red.
While the 2021 box office was dominated by Marvel superhero movies, with the four MCU films and the Sony released Venom: Let There Be Carnage all being in the domestic top 10, it will be interesting to see how 2022 pans out for the studio. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Thor: Love and Thunder, and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever are all established franchises as opposed to Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Eternals, which were new introductions for audiences. The three films will also have theatrically exclusive releases that will arrive on Disney+ 45 days after their theatrical releases, meaning they have a much better chance than Black Widow did.
Brooklyn Public Library is Offering Free Digital Library Cards to Young Adults in the US
The move is intended to counteract a growing book censorship movement
The Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) is counteracting a ban on certain books by letting anyone in the US aged 13 to 21 apply for a digital library card. This gives teens and young adults, regardless of their location in the United States, access to the library’s entire ebook collection.
The initiative, called Books Unbanned, is fighting what the BPL describes as an “increasingly coordinated and effective effort to remove books tackling a wide range of topics from library shelves.” According to the American Library Association (ALA), a total of 729 books were challenged in 2021, meaning a person or group attempted to ban these titles from public libraries.
BPL is combating the negative impact of increased censorship and book bans in libraries across the country with #BooksUnbanned. With libraries facing an increasingly coordinated and effective effort to remove books from library shelves. Learn more at https://t.co/4sPbslW817 pic.twitter.com/OqhNH45JJU
— BKLYN Library (@BKLYNlibrary) April 22, 2022
This led to 1,597 challenges or removals of individual books, most of which were written by or about Black or LGBTQIA+ people and targeted a teenage audience. In Llano, Texas, books including Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen were removed from shelves, and the head of the town’s governing body, Ron Cunningham, questioned whether the town should even have libraries, according to emails obtained through public record requests by The Washington Post. Further north in Granbury, Texas, the Granbury Independent School District pulled over 100 books, only to then return them to the library system after criticism from students and the ACLU.
In addition to the library cards offered to any people in the US between the ages of 13 and 21, the Brooklyn Public Library has also made a selection of ebooks and audiobooks that are frequently banned or challenged at other locations “always available” to library cardholders. You can see a full list of frequently challenged books (and why they were challenged) on the ALA’s website.
If you’re interested in getting a BPL digital library card, you can apply by emailing BooksUnbanned@bklynlibrary.org. You can also find more information about banned books on BPL’s website.
Google Launches Media CDN to Compete on Content Delivery
This week at the 2022 NAB Show Streaming Summit, Google launched in general availability Media CDN, a platform for delivering content using the same infrastructure that powers YouTube. With a presence in over 1,300 cities across 200 countries, Google says that Media CDN is designed to — in the company’s words — “automate all facets” of “serving content [close to users].”
The pandemic led to an explosion in demand for streaming content as business closures and shelter-in-place orders forced folks to stay home. According to The Global Internet Phenomena Report, streaming video accounted for 53.7% of internet bandwidth traffic — up by 4.8% from a year ago. Companies selling access to content delivery networks (CDNs) — groups of servers designed to speed up the delivery of web content — benefited enormously. By one estimate, CDN revenue grew 7% in 2020, to $4.45 billion.
Media CDN, which joins Google’s CDN portfolio for web and API acceleration, is by no stretch of the imagination the first of its kind. There’s plenty of CDNs optimized to serve media. But Google touts ostensibly unique benefits like delivery protocols tailored to individual users and network conditions and “industry-leading” offload rates.
“With multiple tiers of caching, we minimize calls to origin — even for infrequently accessed content,” Google VP Shailesh Shukla wrote in a blog post yesterday. “This alleviates performance or capacity stress in the content origin and saves costs.”
Media CDN also features tools for ad insertion, allowing customers to dynamically inject video content with ads. Moreover, the service is “built with AI/ML” to power interactive experiences, Google says, like real-time stats during sporting events and purchase links embedded in virtual billboards.
“Media CDN offers comprehensive APIs and automation tools … Detailed, pre-aggregated metrics and playback tracing make it easy to diagnose performance across the entire infrastructure stack,” Shukla continued. “Real-time visibility is provided via Google Cloud’s operations suite.”
Google is a small fish in a big pond when it comes to the market for CDN services. In 2019, IDC estimated that Akamai controlled 42% of the CDN market. After Akamai, ChinaNet Center held 13% of the market that year, while Verizon had about 5%.
But Eric Schmitt, a senior research director at Gartner, says that Media CDN sets the stage to substantially expand Google’s dominance of streaming video and web advertising.
“Media CDN marks a further expansion of the [Google parent company] Alphabet empire, in this instance by commercializing the pipes that YouTube uses to deliver streaming video,” Schmitt told TechCrunch via email. “TV and video content providers that choose to build on Google’s Media CDN technology can expect top notch scalability. On the flip side, prospective customers must weigh the risks of becoming technically dependent on Google for advertising delivery, and ultimately perhaps even commercially dependent on it for ad sales and measurement, as Google builds out linkages between its cloud offerings and its advertising software products.”
If that prediction turns out to be true, Media CDN could bolster a cloud division that’s so far struggled to turn a profit. In its most recent earnings report, Alphabet reported that Google Cloud — the business unit that Media CDN falls under — grew 43% in Q1 2022 to reach $5.8 billion, but widened its operating losses to $931 million.
Ordinary Copper Telephone Wire could Carry Gigabit Broadband Speeds
Many homes in the UK rely on repurposed phone lines for internet access, leading to slow download speeds, but there may be a solution
Fibre-optic cable is being laid across the UK at great expense to speed up people’s internet connections, but researchers claim that the copper telephone wire already in use across the country can achieve data rates three times higher than currently seen at a fraction of the price, at least over short distances. Their technique to boost speeds may help to ease the transition to nationwide fibre optic, and may also be of use in countries that use similar twisted-pair copper wire.
Ergin Dinc at the University of Cambridge and his colleagues say that twisted pairs of copper wire, of the type used for decades as telephone lines and now repurposed for broadband internet, can support a frequency fives times higher than is currently used, which would dramatically improve data transmission rates. Above that limit, the researchers found that the wire essentially acts as an aerial and transforms any signal sent along it into radio waves that dissipate before reaching their destination.
“These cables are actually very old, invented by Alexander Graham Bell, and since then no one has looked into the theoretical limits,” says Dinc.
He and his colleagues say that their findings may allow houses near fibre-optic cables to achieve higher speeds than they currently enjoy without the expense of running fibre all the way to their home.
Fibre-optic cables carry groups of photons to represent data, and huge numbers of these groups can be sent along the line one after another without waiting for the first to arrive. Fibre connections in use today typically operate at 1 gigabit per second, but theoretical speeds could be many thousands of times higher.
But in copper wiring, the signal is sent by an electrical current running along the entire length of cable, and the data transmission rate is limited by how quickly the current can be changed.
Existing copper broadband connections operate at a frequency below 1 gigahertz, where the current is changed a billion times a second, but the researchers discovered that this can theoretically be raised to 5 gigahertz using a small and cheap component called a balun.
Dinc doesn’t believe this will translate directly to a fivefold increase in data transmission, because the error rate increases at higher frequencies. Further research is needed to determine how much of a boost is really possible, but Dinc estimates that 3 gigabits per second is feasible. That is triple the current theoretical maximum, although in practice, most people with copper wire broadband in the UK only achieve speeds of at most 80 megabits per second.
Two-Inch Diamond Wafers could Store a Billion Blu-Ray's Worth of Data
Researchers in Japan have developed a new method for making 5-cm (2-in) wafers of diamond that could be used for quantum memory. The ultra-high purity of the diamond allows it to store a staggering amount of data – the equivalent of one billion Blu-Ray discs.
Diamond is one of the most promising materials for practical quantum computing systems, including memory. A particular defect in the crystal, known as a nitrogen-vacancy center, can be used to store data in the form of superconducting quantum bits (qubits), but too much nitrogen in the diamond disrupts its quantum storage capabilities.
That meant there was a trade-off to make – scientists had to create either large diamond wafers with too much nitrogen, or ultra-pure diamond wafers that are too small to be of much use for data storage. But now, researchers at Saga University and Adamant Namiki Precision Jewelery Co. in Japan have developed a new method for manufacturing ultra-high purity diamond wafers that are big enough for practical use.
With this technique, the team says the resulting diamond wafers measure 5 cm across, and have such immense data density that they can theoretically store the equivalent of a billion Blu-Ray discs. One Blu-Ray can store up to 25 GB (assuming it’s single-layered), which would mean this diamond wafer should be able to store a whopping 25 exabytes (EB) of data. The company calls these wafers Kenzan Diamond.
The key is that these diamonds have a nitrogen concentration of under three parts per billion (ppb), making them incredibly pure. The researchers say that these are the largest wafers with that level of purity – most others only get to 4 mm2 (0.006 in2) at most.
Achieving this requires a new manufacturing technique. Diamond wafers are made by growing the crystals on a substrate material, and that material is usually a flat surface. The problem is, the diamond can crack under the strain, degrading the quality. In the new process, the team made a relatively simple change – the substrate surface was shaped like steps, which spreads the strain horizontally and prevents cracking. This allows them to make larger diamond wafers with higher purity.
The team hopes to commercialize these diamond wafers in 2023, and in the meantime are already working towards doubling the diameter to 10 cm (4 in).
The research will be presented at the International Conference on Compound Semiconductor Manufacturing Technology in May.
Hollywood’s Fight Against VPNs Turns Ugly
Beyond accusations of encouraging copyright infringement, film companies have begun accusing VPNs of enabling a slew of illegal activity.
A group of over two dozen film studios has repeatedly taken popular VPN providers to court, sometimes extracting judgements worth millions of dollars in damages. While piracy remains the central issue, recent legal arguments employed by Hollywood studios have surpassed accusations of copyright infringement and delved into dirtier waters.
Filmmakers attempting to recoup revenue lost to piracy have long alleged that VPN companies both encourage online privacy and have clear-cut evidence that their customers are abusing the privacy and security provided by virtual private networks. But court records show that studios’ legal teams have also accused VPN providers of enabling illegal activity far beyond copyright infringement and, legal experts say, are challenging the notion that VPNs should exist at all.
In March, 26 film companies brought allegations against ExpressVPN and Private Internet Access (PIA), popular “no-log” VPN companies owned by Kape Technologies. The plaintiffs include production companies like Millennium, Voltage, and others behind a slate of popular films. The lawsuit centers on allegations of user privacy. However, court documents reviewed by WIRED reveal plaintiffs arguing that these VPN providers refuse to prevent users from using their services to commit serious illegal acts and run marketing campaigns that openly “boast” that law enforcement is unable to extract any information about their users.
Generally speaking, VPNs give users greater privacy protections by encrypting their online activity and rerouting it through the company’s servers, concealing their IP addresses. Many VPN providers, including ExpressVPN and PIA, claim to maintain “no logs” of their users’ internet activities. This means VPN providers can’t access data to turn over to police or comply with copyright infringement claims. Similar to arguments against comprehensive encryption, the film companies paint VPN providers as culpable in any crimes committed while using their services.
“Emboldened by Defendants’ promises that their identities cannot be disclosed, Defendants’ end users use their VPN services not only to engage in widespread movie piracy, but other outrageous criminal conduct such as harassment, illegal hacking and murder,” reads the lawsuit, filed in US District Court in Colorado. “When these crimes become public, Defendants use these tragic incidents as opportunities to boast about their VPN services.”
The VPN companies responded in court filings that the “inflammatory topics” plaintiffs evoked are irrelevant to copyright infringement. Allegations as far afield as “hacking, stalking, bomb threats, political assassinations, child pornography, and anonymous online message board posts full of hate speech and appearing to encourage violence and murder” are a ploy to portray the VPNs in “a cruelly derogatory light," argue the VPNs’ legal teams.
Beyond vague examples of heinous crimes, the court filing mentions an Express VPN subscriber admitting to downloading child sexual abuse material (CSAM). The film companies also call out the personal political views or activities of those employed by the VPN companies. Specifically, they focus on Rick Falkvinge, who’s known for his political views and arguments that CSAM should be legal. Falkvinge previously served as PIA's “head of privacy” and created the political Pirate Party. He has repeatedly advocated for reforms to copyright laws, calling “copying and sharing” a “natural right.”
“Any opinions expressed by Rick Falkvinge are his own and not a reflection of PIA or its beliefs as a company. In particular, PIA in no way condones child sexual abuse or exploitation of any form,” a PIA spokesperson said in a statement to WIRED. An ExpressVPN spokesperson added that its policies strictly forbid anyone using its service to traffic in CSAM.
PIA’s attorney argues that the allegations that it aids serious illegal activity must be stricken from the case because they are completely irrelevant and “serve only to inflame emotions in a misguided attempt to prejudice the Court and the public against the defendants by false association with the non-parties whose conduct is described in these paragraphs.”
ExpressVPN and PIA further denied the production companies' broad allegations. An ExpressVPN spokesperson said the court had dismissed the claims in the filmmakers' suit but was not able to disclose the terms of the settlement. The spokesperson also emphasized that the “operation of ExpressVPN’s service has not been changed or otherwise impacted in any way relevant to the parties’ dispute.”
PIA maintained that this litigation jeopardizes user privacy and that it will therefore keep fighting in court. “We assert that the use of VPNs is a legitimate way to protect one’s online privacy—a fundamental human right, which is increasingly in jeopardy of infringement,” the company said.
Legal counsel representing the movie studios did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment.
While Hollywood has waged legal battles around the globe for years, its fights against the VPN industry in the US ramped up last year. VPN company TorGuard, for example, landed in legal hot water with the same group of plaintiffs who successfully forced the VPN provider into blocking BitTorrent traffic for its US users. And in October 2021, VPN.ht also “settled” with these filmmakers, agreeing to not only block BitTorrent but also to log traffic on its US servers. Hollywood studios have also taken providers like Surfshark, VPN Unlimited, and Zenmate to court.
Film company Voltage, which is among the group of companies regularly suing VPN providers, goes a step further, mailing letters to internet customers demanding fines for alleged piracy and threatening them with legal action.
In March 2021, some of the same production companies suing ExpressVPN and PIA also sued no-log VPN provider LiquidVPN for “encouraging and facilitating” piracy. Later, the film companies demanded $10 million in damages from the company. A judge issued a default judgment against LiquidVPN this March, ordering it to pay the studios $14 million.
That lawsuit largely centered around LiquidVPN’s fiery marketing practices and claimed that the VPN is “optimized for torrenting” and lets you “unblock ISP banned streams.” These tactics, the studios argued, encouraged illicit use of the service by those willing to bypass legal restrictions around accessing online content. They might be right.
According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an internet civil liberties group, some of Hollywood’s demands are “extreme and not supported by law.” Indeed, in December, a federal court in Florida dismissed a lawsuit against Quadranet, which provided hosting to LiquidVPN, that was brought by many of the same film companies that sued ExpressVPN and PIA. But VPNs are also treading into dangerous territory through their marketing tactics.
“The studios argued that a VPN provider and its hosting company should have had a legal responsibility to monitor what their customers were doing with the service, to see if copyright infringement was going on,” says Mitch Stoltz, a senior staff attorney at EFF. “Not only is that not the law, it would undermine the whole purpose of a VPN service, which is to protect people’s internet communications against eavesdropping.”
Stoltz warns, however, that bold marketing language used by VPNs, such as LiquidVPN’s “optimized for torrenting” claim, can very well be considered “inducement” in a legal context and incur liability for copyright infringement. Fearing the possibility of heavy monetary damages, VPN providers may instead choose to shut down some of their services or settle out of court.
“In contrast, a VPN that doesn’t advertise or encourage infringing uses generally won’t be liable in court even if some users do infringe,” says Stoltz. “That’s an important legal protection for VPN providers, who provide an important service that would be undermined if they were faced with broad monitoring and blocking requirements.”
North Koreans Are Jailbreaking Phones to Access Forbidden Media
A new report suggests that a small but vibrant group of smartphone hackers may be challenging the world's most digitally restrictive regime.
For most of the world, the common practice of "rooting" or "jailbreaking" a phone allows the device's owner to install apps and software tweaks that break the restrictions of Apple’s or Google's operating systems. For a growing number of North Koreans, on the other hand, the same form of hacking allows them to break out of a far more expansive system of control—one that seeks to extend to every aspect of their lives and minds.
On Wednesday, the North Korea-focused human rights organization Lumen and Martyn Williams, a researcher at the Stimson Center think tank's North Korea–focused 38 North project, together released a report on the state of smartphones and telecommunications in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, a country that restricts its citizens' access to information and the internet more tightly than any other in the world. The report details how millions of government-approved, Android-based smartphones now permeate North Korean society, though with digital restrictions that prevent their users from downloading any app or even any file not officially sanctioned by the state. But within that regime of digital repression, the report also offers a glimpse of an unlikely new group: North Korean jailbreakers capable of hacking those smartphones to secretly regain control of them and unlock a world of forbidden foreign content.
"There has been a sort of constant battle between the North Korean government and its citizens over use of technology: Each time a new technology has been introduced, people have usually found a way to use it for some illicit purpose. But that hasn't really been done through this kind of hacking—until now," says Williams. "In terms of the future of free information in North Korea, it shows that people are still willing to try to break the government's controls."
Learning anything about the details of subversive activity in North Korea—digital or otherwise—is notoriously difficult, given the Hermit Kingdom's nearly airtight information controls. Lumen's findings on North Korean jailbreaking are based on interviews with just two defectors from the country. But Williams says the two escapees both independently described hacking their phones and those of other North Koreans, roughly corroborating each others' telling. Other North Korea–focused researchers who have interviewed defectors say they've heard similar stories.
Both jailbreakers interviewed by Lumen and Williams said they hacked their phones—government-approved, Chinese-made, midrange Android phones known as the Pyongyang 2423 and 2413—primarily so that they could use the devices to watch foreign media and install apps that weren't approved by the government. Their hacking was designed to circumvent a government-created version of Android on those phones, which has for years included a certificate system that requires any file downloaded to the device to be "signed" with a cryptographic signature from government authorities, or else it's immediately and automatically deleted. Both jailbreakers say they were able to remove that certificate authentication scheme from phones, allowing them to install forbidden apps, such as games, as well as foreign media like South Korean films, TV shows, and ebooks that North Koreans have sought to access for decades despite draconian government bans.
In another Orwellian measure, Pyongyang phones' government-created operating system takes screenshots of the device at random intervals, the two defectors say—a surveillance feature designed to instill a sense that the user is always being monitored. The images from those screenshots are then kept in an inaccessible portion of the phone's storage, where they can't be viewed or deleted. Jailbreaking the phones also allowed the two defectors to access and wipe those surveillance screenshots, they say.
The two hackers told Lumen they used their jailbreaking skills to remove restrictions from friends' phones, as well. They said they also knew of people who would jailbreak phones as a commercial service, though often for purposes that had less to do with information freedom than more mundane motives. Some users wanted to install a certain screensaver on their phone, for instance, or wipe the phone's surveillance screenshots merely to free up storage before selling the phone secondhand.
One of the two jailbreakers, by contrast, said he was motivated in part by the same kind of mentality that drives some hackers in the West, according to Sokeel Park, the country director for Liberty in North Korea, who also spoke with the same defector who was interviewed by Lumen. "There isn't necessarily a super rational reason for this kind of hacking," says Park. "It's just like, doing stuff because you can, playing this cat-and-mouse game to test your own abilities."
Exactly what technical methods the two hackers used to defy their devices' restrictions is far from clear, given their limited, secondhand accounts. But both described attaching phones to a Windows PC via a USB cable to install a jailbreaking tool. One mentioned that the Pyongyang 2423’s software included a vulnerability that allowed programs to be installed in a hidden directory. The hacker says they exploited that quirk to install a jailbreaking program they'd downloaded while working abroad in China and then smuggled back into North Korea. The other hacker didn't make clear the source of his jailbreaking tool, but said he had been a student in a computer science group at Pyongyang's elite Kim Il Sung University.
The hackers Lumen describes are broadly representative of the two emerging classes of people jailbreaking phones in North Korea, says Nat Kretchun, the vice president for programs at the Open Technology Fund and a longtime researcher of North Korean media and technology. "There are the folks who come out of Kim Il Sung University or Kim Chaek University or part of the North Korean state who are essentially building these tools and doing kind of cheeky things on the side to allow themselves a little bit of room to undo the things that they implemented themselves," says Kretchun, who has independently interviewed several North Korean jailbreakers. "Then there's this other class of folks who have some amount of computer science literacy and are spending so much time with the phones that they're basically mapping out exactly how the thing works in practice and finding pretty clever work-arounds."
Kretchun and other researchers say that the number of jailbreakers remains fairly small, given the rarity of computer literacy in the country and the difficulty of sharing the tools. Changes to North Korean phones to disable their USB connections may have made jailbreaking even more of a challenge, says 38 North's Williams. But he points to a new law implemented in late 2020 that forbids "illegally installing a phone manipulation program" and includes a fine for possessing a smartphone without safeguards designed to block "impure publications," as the law puts it.
"While it is difficult to estimate the number of North Koreans modifying their phones, and interviewees did not seem to think the practice was widespread," reads Lumen's report, "the existence of this specific wording would imply it is happening at a scale where authorities are aware and potentially concerned."
Despite the relatively small scale of jailbreaking in the DPRK, Liberty in North Korea’s Sokeel Park argues that even a small community of phone hackers represents a sign that North Koreans have the will to fight against government controls. He adds that jailbreakers elsewhere in the world should perhaps focus their efforts on building and distributing hacking tools designed to help them.
"I think it's a very obvious call to action for the international community of technologists," Park says. "There is a dynamism there. This kind of hacking shows North Koreans are not passive subjects of oppression and surveillance and censorship. North Korean people are creating solutions and work-arounds so that they can learn things that the North Korean government doesn't want them to learn, sharing things the government considers subversive, and ultimately so they can create a challenge to the regime."
French Investigate Who is Behind Fiber Optic Cables Sabotage
The Paris prosecutor’s office opened a preliminary investigation Wednesday into the suspected sabotage of fiber optic cables, which disrupted the internet in several regions around France, and said the country’s domestic intelligence agency would help with the probe.
The outages occurred early Wednesday, hitting several — but not all — operators into the day. Authorities suggested the damage to the cables was intentional.
Moving quickly, the prosecutor’s office opened a preliminary investigation on charges of “damaging goods of a nature of harming the fundamental interests of the nation,” as well as “obstruction of an automatic data processing system” and criminal association, the Paris prosecutor’s office said. In what appeared to be an unusual move, France’s internal intelligence service, known as the DGSI, was helping in the investigation, along with the judicial police.
It was not clear whether there were any known suspects.
The cable cuts apparently had no effect on vital services like hospitals. Some customers woke up without internet service and technicians scrambled to patch up the damage.
Until next week,
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