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This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on October 12, 2020 - October 18, 2020

It seemed an unwinnable war. Like certain other blights on society, online piracy was where the bad guys were always several kilobytes ahead of the curve. No sooner would one illegal streaming site be shut down than six or seven others would pop up. The authorities never seemed to have the will or the wherewithal to decapitate this digital hydra. Nor did we.

It is something that many of us are guilty of. Desperate to watch a game that is not being shown on TV, we look for a site on the net. The worst that can happen is the link breaks or we get a virus. We do not fear a knock on the door. But left unchecked, piracy threatens the very existence of the sports we love. And never more so than right now.

Thanks to Covid-19, broadcasting revenue is keeping sports alive. “Prune juice” is what­ex-Tottenham Hotspur chairman Alan Sugar famously called it back in 2002. It was an apt description of money that passed all too swiftly through football’s system, going to hedonistic players and greedy agents mostly, with precious little to sustain smaller clubs or grow the game.

But right now, “prune juice” is sport’s saline drip in many countries. The coronavirus has seen empty stadiums — and even golf courses — turn into bio-secure bubbles so the televised show can go on. Tennis’ French Open, Indian Premier League cricket and US Masters golf are all only possible because of TV.

In football, some clubs in Europe are 90% dependent on TV income and those that get nothing are begging from those that do. Never has the need to protect this lifeline been greater.

It is just as well then that the war on piracy is being stepped up — driven by the English Premier League (EPL), the biggest beneficiary of all. Last month’s launch of its “Boot Out Piracy” in Kuala Lumpur aims to build on new levels of co-operation with, and between, governments in the region. New measures are also beginning to see the tide turn.

Via email, I asked both Kevin Plumb, the EPL’s director of legal services, and Neil Gane, general manager of Asia Video Industry Association’s (AVIA) Coalition Against Piracy (CAP), for an update. The heartening news is that in this neck of the worldwide woods, Joe Public is playing a significant part.

According to Gane, “A September 2020 YouGov consumer survey* showed a 64% decline in consumers accessing piracy streaming sites when compared to a similar YouGov survey in August 2019. More than half (55%) of online Malaysian consumers noticed that a piracy service had been blocked by the authorities, which appeared to influence their viewing habits, with 49% stating that they no longer accessed piracy services and 40% stating that they now rarely accessed piracy services.”

He added: “When asked about the negative consequences of online piracy, consumers placed funding crime groups (57%), loss of jobs in the creative industry (52%) and malware risks (42%) as their top three concerns.”

This supports Plumb’s assertion that “most people do not want to be doing anything illegal, regardless of whether they are caught. That feeling is reinforced when people find out they could be giving money to criminal gangs involved in all manner of unconscionable activity.

“However, for some people, the concern might be less about whether the activity is illegal but more about exposure to unwanted content and data theft, or poor-quality service, which means they will miss the match anyway.”

There are many factors involved, which is why Gane maintains that “collaboration and co-operation are key”.

“Fortunately, we are beginning to see Southeast Asian governments increasingly agreeing that the online world needs to be managed and there needs to be rules. Regulatory site-blocking regimes already in place are becoming more streamlined and effective,” he said.

“Collaboration within industry is also critical, essentially working within a network to enforce and disrupt the criminal IPTV [internet protocol television] and piracy networks. CAP has helped create a number of Southeast Asian coalitions … and we also work closely with the Astro team in Malaysia.”

It is also about superior technology. “I think we are even better [at combating piracy] in Asia-Pacific now. However, we cannot be complacent as the pirates also continue to develop. As we get more proficient at enforcement in the region, pirates will adapt and change their behaviours,” Plumb wrote.

Asked if he had been able to use the UK technique of cutting streams at source here in Asia, he replied, “In the UK, a new High Court blocking order granted in advance of this season enhanced even further our previous blocking work. This now stands as the most sophisticated mechanism we have in our toolkit to combat piracy and has had a devastating impact on the pirates of our content in the UK.

“That system is a world-first, so we do not yet have it in other jurisdictions, but it is certainly our stated aim to spread the use of more developed forms of blocking if it is required. The current blocking infrastructure in Malaysia is being developed all the time and we are pleased with the way things are progressing here.”

AVIA is equally positive about the progress. “As a result of the 2019 Digital Anti-Piracy Summit, the Malaysian government streamlined the blocking regime by placing it under the Ministry of Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs, which has led to greatly expedited compliance from internet service providers. In turn, these efforts, coupled with targeted consumer awareness campaigns, have led to a change in consumer demand for pirated content,” Gane stated.

He claimed that Indonesia is even more of a success story with an average of 60 sites being blocked every 10 days, culminating in IndoXXI, the most popular piracy network in Southeast Asia, “voluntarily” shutting down on Jan 1, 2020.

All in all, it is a surprisingly encouraging picture. Plumb said setting up an office in Singapore enabled him “to work even more closely with Astro on new initiatives around fast-tracked site blocking and action against ISD [illicit streaming device] suppliers. They are one of our most active licensees in tackling piracy and are doing a great job working with us to address issues in Malaysia.”

Piracy was always the elephant in the room when broadcasting rights were discussed — for both sides of the table. Now, with the virus refusing to go away and fans still banned, the rights windfalls have become a matter of life and death for some sporting organisations.

In football, the EPL is already being eroded by refunds owing to the current inferior product and less conducive kick-off times for Asian viewers. A rebate of £330 million (RM1.8 billion) was paid due to the effects of last season’s interruption. And now, the smaller clubs in the English Football League are demanding a £250 million bailout from the big boys. The UK government will not help, pointing to the £1.45 billion spent on players in the transfer window that closed last week.

It is prune juice all over again. If only there was as much co-operation in sharing the spoils as there is in protecting them, sport might be in better shape.

Bob Holmes is a long-time sports writer specialising in football

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