In Russia, legislators continue their confident, yet unsuccessful attempts to counter internet piracy. This includes a new plan blocking pirated content from appearing in search returns. Will this result in less online piracy? Why are legislators so behind in dealing with internet piracy? The Director of RosKomSvoboda, Sarkis Darbinian, answers these questions for Digital.Report.
DR: Recently, “Roskomnadzor” succeeded in blocking many websites hosting pirated content from internet search returns – can this be considered an achievement?
SD: It is inaccurate to call this an achievement. We see how legislators try to catch up to technology and it looks quite ridiculous. The largest torrent sharing site, Rutreker.org, was blocked two years ago and it seems to have been forgotten. Yet it has not disappeared online. Even though the number of visitors has decreased, the number of shares has remained the same. This means that the ongoing blocking of this resource has not impacted file transfers. The third version of the antipiracy Law on Mirror Websites has also had little effect. Deciding to classify a website as a “mirror” results in the Ministry of Communication sending it to Roskomnadzor for examination. The process of restricting access to this website takes 3-5 days on average.
In this time frame, a webmaster is able to make dozens, or even hundreds of other mirror websites, adding a 301 redirect, changing the domain in Yandex and Google, and once again appearing in web searches. Two months have gone by since the implementation of the Law on Mirror Websites, about 100 applications are processed per month. Some of these are completed successfully, however, from the position of the user nothing has changed, since these websites multiply in a geometric progression. Additionally, we have seen another really interesting moment. In Runet, clones of well-known pirate resources that have no connection to them, have started to appear. These websites are purely fraudulent. Their purpose is phishing, spam, and gathering user data to sell. In the event an original pirate website is deleted from web searches, along with its mirrors, its space is taken up by the sites of scammers, and their search position automatically improves. It turns out that the attempts to combat pirate mirrors have considerably increased the user risk of falling victim to cyber fraud.
DR: Why hasn’t this problem been overcome yet, despite the constant efforts to combat piracy at a legislative level?
SD: In this chase, internet pirates will always be one step ahead. They quickly adapt to circumstances, and they are not bound by Russian laws, which cannot possibly cover all the technological features of the network. They acquire new strategies of distribution much faster than the players of legal distribution – channels in Telegram, P2P applications, distribution of magnet files and DHT protocols. Users now have many more opportunities to access and share content. Plus, we need to take into account that big percentage of Russians have mastered VPN and Tor. If you open a search engine and change your Russian geolocation then, of course, you see totally different search results in Google and Yandex.
Not to mention the likes of DuckDuckGo, which do not follow the requirements of the Russian law for web searches. Sharing content is a natural human need. People do not really understand copyright laws and do not really bother to follow it. Only a few people can successfully differentiate legitimate content from pirated content. And in recent years, there have been so many opportunities to simplify this differentiation. Millions of transactions occur per day in WhatsApp alone. People share video recordings, music, photographs, and e-books. How do you stop them? Moreover, all messages are encrypted using end-to-end encryption and even the administrators of WhatsApp do not know what the users are sharing.
DR: If fighting piracy is good for content generators, why are government agencies needed to achieve this? How does government benefit from preventing internet piracy?
SD: The idea that countering piracy isn’t beneficial for major companies is an absurdity spread by some populists and others who are not well versed on the problem. Big companies are neither hot nor cold, in fact. And this was once again proved through a study commissioned by the European Union, costing €400,000. The survey of more than 30,000 people from Germany, France, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, and Great Britain, showed that pirating had no effect on the sales of various licensed content. Therefore, the only truly interested people in this hype and combat against piracy, are specialized associations of copyright holders, copyright protection agencies, and different kinds of lawyers serving major client companies.
For me it also remains a mystery, why the government uses its budget (from taxpayer money), to protect the private interests of individual content owners. For example, in industrial intellectual property, there is no such thing. Inventions or brand logos are protected by patents at the expense of the rights holders, which are under obligations to pay fees on a regular basis for such rights protection. In the realm of copyright, we see a totally different picture. ISP hosting providers, messengers, and even experts from the Ministry of Communications, need to take part in a multi-faceted scheme, created by Russian lawmakers, on the protection of exclusive rights of commercial enterprises, engaged in the production of content for mass consumption. This cannot be logically explained.
DR: Can laws fighting piracy be used to suppress undesirable sources of information?
SD: Yes, this already happens on a regular basis. We often hear that YouTube blocks videos of opposition politicians. In order to block a video, creating a simple compromising situation is enough. Simply include a well-known copyrighted song in an altered version of the video and click the “report copyright violation” button after uploading it. There is a strong chance that the original will be blocked as a result. Kremlin activists are actively applying this method. The EFF has published examples of this. They even have a wall of shame about requests to delete content because of copyright violations. In Russia, there are also many controversial cases related to the new antipiracy laws. For example, access to the electronic library BookFi.net has been restricted six times due to “extremism”, and in September 2017, the portal was totally blocked from distributing free educational material.
Something similar happened with compromat.ru. It was previously blocked because of claims that the personal data of those people being investigated by the site was infringed. In September, access to the entire site was blocked by ISPs. For nearly a year the well-known French video hosting site Dailymotion has been blocked due to its inability to comply with Russian antipiracy laws, based on a decision by the Moscow City Court. Moreover, violating copyright laws is often used to initiate criminal cases against civil society activists. According to Russian criminal law, such cases are related to cases of public prosecution. That means that the investigative body does not even need to receive a request from the copyright holder to start the prosecution process. This raises a great deal of questions.
DR: Is it possible for legislators to solve piracy in just one country? The internet has no borders and surely there is a need for international laws which would cover all countries?
SD: Undoubtedly, implementing laws within the limits of one jurisdiction will have no effect on changing the situation within the digital space. A user turns on a proxy service or a free VPN, and in a few seconds, there will be a totally different internet from some other country, such as Denmark, for example, and the user can quite freely and without punishment, share information, and access practically any content. Of course, here, the problem runs deeper. The Berne Convention, which was signed by the international community, was adopted in the pre-internet era. It is hopelessly outdated, and does not take into account societal needs, nor the changes in how content is moved through technological progress. Despite this, the Berne Convention is the foundation of many other international agreements (including the TRIPS agreement) as well as national laws.
For example, look at the minimum period of protection following a copyright holder’s death, 50 years. Can you name any programs, for example, for computer engineering, which have been transferred to the public domain, and are used freely today in compliance with the expiration of the terms of copyright protection? We need to seriously question the international community about a new convention. My colleagues and I, in our time, initiated work on the creation of the Moscow Convention on Copyrights, which would take into account all modern challenges and needs of stakeholders. This is exactly what Russia needs to take to the WTO and WIPO, but the idea, unfortunately, does not stick. For now, it is unclear whether any government has taken it upon themselves to bravely speak out at a global level, to suggest reforms to copyrights in the digital age. Even though the undeniable need for such reform has existed for a long time.
DR: What further antipiracy laws can be expected?
SD: In Russia, in the past 4 years, three versions of the anti-piracy law called the Ban on VPN have already been adopted, which were pushed by copyrights holders unhappy that current blocking was not working. This is obviously not the end of it. The Minster of Culture has for several years been proposing measures to tighten anti-piracy legislation. One of them is the implementation of fines for users who download pirated content. But the ministry does not explain how regular users should be able to tell the difference between legal and illegal content, in the absence of any registry or tools to help.
Recently, the Ministry of Culture proposed new measures to immediately block sites violating copyrights and illegally distributing Russian films. The department believes that piracy is responsible for the lack of sales of Russian films, which results in significant financial losses for the domestic film industry. For this reason, we will see a fourth and a fifth version of antipiracy legislation. The end of this process is not yet in sight.
DR: Do legislators consider other distribution channels, such as private messengers and social networks?
SD: Of course, the law catches up to technological progress all the time. Right now, we can see how legislators are trying to produce a specific business model or technology in the law. But each time these attempts suffer failures. They quickly cease being relevant, and in the end, do not bring about any positive economic effects. Despite this, at a very low level, the regulatory impact of some new principles are appreciated. Eventually, many services leave Russia’s jurisdiction, because of the risks. For Western players, competitive advantages emerge over Russian services, due to the fact that they are not bound by the same Russian legal requirements. Decentralized networks, platforms for anonymous sharing, and channels in Telegram, create new challenges for copyright holders and governments. It does not appear that the latter understands what to do with this and how to regulate this for it to work properly.
DR: Don’t these laws enable bigger companies to sort of blackmail or extort competitors? An example of this recently was Microsoft who, without much evidence, forced a private company to pay money.
SD: Of course, these opportunities exist. Some companies actively use these instruments to monopolizing the playing field. For example, the Russian association AZAPI, which represents the interests of large Russian book publishers, actively uses the courts. Since the company is now self-sustainable, their goal is not to prevent the violation of the exclusive rights of its clients, but to receive maximum compensation from website owners, hosting-providers, and other information intermediaries, influencing them to sign amicable agreements. At the same time, if it works out, they willingly squeeze out file-sharing resources and pirated sites, change the positions from their catalogue with links to the official website of LitResa, and on the rest of the content continue to earn money. Out of the Western players, the most active is of course Microsoft, which terrorizes a considerable number of entrepreneurs, for visible and invisible infringement of copyrights. Examples like this one are becoming more common, and this also allows us to understand that the copyright system is broken. The time has come to change the whole system of copyright protection at a national as well as international level.