The rise of cyberlockers—how online piracy is fighting back

August 10, 2018 by Gareth Tyson, The Conversation
Credit: Shutterstock

Illegal downloading is on its way out. A new report released by polling firm YouGov has found that only 10% of people in the UK now use illegal downloads to access music, down from 18% in 2013. And the recently released Global online piracy study from the University of Amsterdam argued that entertainment streaming services such as Spotify and Netflix mean that far fewer people are accessing copyright-infringing content.

Despite this, pirated songs, films and TV shows are still widely available online. For example, the Amsterdam study also found that 36% of the UK population has accessed illegal content online in the last year. The shift from downloads to streaming is real but it hasn't solved all the entertainment industry's problems because piracy has also shifted in a similar way. A growing fraction of illegal content is now accessed through streaming "cyberlockers", YouTube-like websites often used to upload and share video content without permission. There has recently been significant growth in their use, with 10% of infringers using cyberlockers in 2017, up from 4% in 2016.

Together with my Ph.D. student Damilola Ibosiola and other colleagues, I recently published research showing that most illegal streaming cyberlocker content is distributed by just a handful of providers, as opposed to the millions of people who used to share files illegally through peer-to-peer downloading software. This might make it easier for law enforcement to contact the host of an illegal file, but it also means that they are up against people with extensive experience in evading detection. As a result, the pirates are constantly fighting back.

Because of this, we wanted to understand how the cyberlockers used by pirates operate, and shed light on this murky domain. We built software to monitor the videos uploaded onto popular cyberlockers, as well as "indexing websites", which maintain a directory of links to reliable sources of videos on cyberlockers. In total, we identified over 795,000 links.

How it works

What we found was truly fascinating, a dynamic ecosystem of competing players, constantly striving to evade detection and being forced to takedown content. This is perhaps not surprising given our observation that these operations were apparently very fragile.

For example, one website we studied was taken offline three months into our measurements. But these kinds of departures were also complimented by various new cyberlocker arrivals.

All seemed in a constant flux, with links being added and deleted regularly. A total of 55% of cyberlockers saw growth during our measurement period, while 45% saw a decline. But the apparent diversity of cyberlockers may be rather superficial. By examining certain features of the sites to infer potential relationships, we discovered that, in many cases, individual operators were running multiple different websites.

A total of 58% of all videos that we monitored were held by just two major hosting providers, although from the outside they appeared to be dispersed across 15 apparently independent cyberlockers. This meant action against one company could take down a huge chunk of illegal material.

Our guess was that this was largely a product of the cat-and-mouse game played between cyberlockers and copyright enforcers. These enforcers monitor popular websites to identify infringing content, and then use legal notices to request its removal.

We observed cyberlockers use many techniques to fly under the radar of these enforcers. A total of 64% of the sites we studied did not have search features, making it difficult to find content from their front page, and 42% obscured their true content by hiding it among various obscure copyright-free videos.

To get an idea of how successful the copyright enforcers were, we also used data from Lumen, which records cease and desist letters concerning online content. We were surprised to find that 84% of the notices we monitored were apparently acted upon, with cyberlockers taking down the content. What was less surprising to find was that it usually wasn't long before the very same emerged elsewhere (often on the same cyberlocker under a different page).

It seems that online piracy is less of a technical game, and more of a socioeconomic one, with pirates and law enforcers constantly innovating around each other. In most cases, both sides of the debate are driven by financial incentives. It therefore seems likely that the long-term solution will be for the media industry to create new business models that deplete those incentives. Until then, the game will continue.

Explore further: Movie Pirates of the Caribbean: Illegal streaming sites vulnerable to copyright enforcers

Related Stories

A social reboot for illegal downloaders

January 3, 2017

Unauthorized downloading of digital goods, including copyright music, videos, computer games, and images has become an increasing problem for content providers and those who hold the copyright on such goods and expect remuneration ...

Online piracy sites blocked in Australia crackdown

August 18, 2017

An Australian court on Friday ordered internet providers to block more than 40 piracy websites after a successful case by leading film distributors, in a major ruling on online content sharing.

Australia to crack down on online pirates

December 10, 2014

Australia's government Wednesday outlined plans to tackle online piracy as it moves to end the country's position as one of the world's top illegal downloaders of television shows such as "Game of Thrones".

Recommended for you

Prenatal forest fire exposure stunts children's growth

February 19, 2019

Forest fires are more harmful than previously imagined, causing stunted growth in children who were exposed to smoke while in the womb, according to new research from Duke University and the National University of Singapore.

'Astrocomb' opens new horizons for planet-hunting telescope

February 19, 2019

The hunt for Earth-like planets, and perhaps extraterrestrial life, just got more precise, thanks to record-setting starlight measurements made possible by a National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) "astrocomb."


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.