Illegal streaming and downloading sites are thriving on the Internet. Their business model is essentially based on the advertisements they display, most of which refer to pornographic sites – regardless of the age of the Internet user. Problem: our justice system is not armed to fight this phenomenon. The only effective process: the drying up of the revenues generated by these platforms, which are often managed by mafia networks.

Good news: The Internet is no longer, or no longer completely, a lawless zone. This is what a young French computer developer learned at his own expense, judged on November 13, 2019 by the court of Besançon for “ contrefaçon by trespassing, copyright infringement and concealment of a good coming from a délit ”. This “ petit genius”, only 23 years old, was the head of a very popular illegal streaming site, “ seriefr.eu ”, which, before it was shut down by the authorities, offered some 2 million video files and attracted up to 700 000 unique visitors per month. A platform that would have cost hundreds of thousands of euros to the right holders and brought back, thanks to a system of advertising links, 200 000 euros to the young man, against whom the public prosecutor’s office demanded eight months suspended prison.

Mafia 2.0

It is no secret that there are many websites offering illegal content – music, films, series, video games, sports events, etc. – and that the number of websites offering illegal content is increasing. – is constantly increasing, especially since the fall of the giant Megaupload. With more than 10 billion visits in 2017, French Internet users are even the European champions of illegal downloading and streaming. However, behind the pleasure of having free content that is usually paid for, and the ease of access to this same content, lies the less glamorous side of these practices. If these illegal platforms were, at their beginnings, the creations of isolated hackers wishing to water their “ communautés ” with various and varied contents, they are today the prerogative of real mafia networks, extremely well organized and with international ramifications.

This is demonstrated by a survey by Le Parisien, dated October 2018 and devoted to the worrying excesses of illegal sports streaming platforms – a phenomenon that attracts 3.5 million French people every year and causes a shortfall of 400 million euros for pay-TV channels. Very simple to set up, piracy of live sports events is repeated thousands of times by hundreds of little hands working in “ fermes ” hidden in Asia or Russia, and involves a multitude of players, from suppliers to manufacturers, advertising agencies and advertisers – the latter participating, in fact, in remunerating the organizations at the head of this audiovisual traffic, thanks to the advertisements on these sites, which are most of the time their only source of income.

Yet it would be wrong to believe these practices reserved for obscure foreign pharmacies. As Mediapart revealed last January, web giant Google is also involved in illegal streaming. Or rather its advertising agency and real cash cow, Google AdSense, some of whose ads were found on one of the most famous illegal streaming sites, “ VoirFilms ”. Proof of the vagueness that reigns on these questions and the lack of voluntarism of certain actors, even though they are concerned in the first place, the French subsidiary of the Californian firm, Google Ads France, is said to have blamed its parent company, while omitting to alert it internally to the presence of its advertising products on illegal sites.

The “follow the money” approach

As has been said, without advertising, there is no revenue for these illegal platforms, and therefore no – or substantially less – revenue for these platforms at all. Thus posed, the problem is simple ; but its resolution is more complex than it seems. As indicated in a report by the High Authority for the Dissemination of Works and the Protection of Rights on the Internet (Hadopi), one of the most effective ways of combating piracy is the approach called “ Follow the money ”: supported by the European Commission and implemented in several countries of the Old Continent as well as in the United States, it is based on a logic of self-regulation between right holders and advertising actors, the former identifying illegal sites in order to dry them up financially.

It is this approach that last year led to the closure of one of the largest illegal sports streaming sites, “ beinsport-streaming ”. Thanks to technical intercepts, the police and gendarmerie services have thus traced the various financial flows of the site to the head of the network, a man who would have amassed 350 000 euros thanks to the advertising revenues generated on his platform. He has been appearing with four other defendants since 5 December before the Rennes criminal court and, with his co-defendants, faces up to ten years in prison and a fine of 750 000 euros for the offence of counterfeiting in an organised gang and aggravated money laundering. However real this progress may be, it must not overlook the fact that in France, the justice system lacks the means to effectively combat illegal sites.

This is what Gordon Choisel, president of the Ennocence association, deplores, according to whom the first exposure of children to pornography now occurs at the age of 8 or 9. The fault lies precisely with pornographic pop-up advertisements appearing, for example, on illegal platforms on which children watch cartoons. In order to undermine their business model and affect their wallet, only the deregistration of these sites works, leading to a drop in traffic, therefore a drop in advertising revenue and a flight of advertisers. However, the political will must follow and the players concerned must work together to combat illegal streaming and its abuses.