Now Streaming and Surveilling

Piracy ( by Tobias Vemmenby (CC BY 2.0)

Piracy and copyright infringement should not be unfamiliar terms to the digital natives of today. Many of us will have known someone close to us- perhaps a family member or a friend- who has engaged in some form of piracy. Even you, yourself, may have willingly clicked download on that newest episode of Game of Thrones or Pretty Little Liars. You may have spent your teen years downloading and sharing MP3s through the infamous torrent engine, LimeWire and you may recall how this commercial played before you watched a film you had rented. (Ironically, that commercial has since been found to have utilised stolen music itself. How awkward!)

Now, I don’t want this to come across as a dystopian, telling-off type blog post. Each of you dear readers will have your own views on the practices of piracy and whether or not you perceive them as ethical and/or unethical. This may even justify your reasoning for using or not using such mechanisms to obtain material. What I would like to focus on now, is how surveillance factors into this pressing social issue. Do we know how we are being watched when we stream and download content illegally? And are the authorities justified in their actions? It seems like the ominous threat of surveillance does not always deter.

Top Pirated Television Shows 2008-2015 – created by Caitlyn Putt on

I sent out a Twitter poll to my followers this week, trying to gauge an idea of how many of them were aware of surveillance when participating in online streaming and downloading. I was enlightened by some of my followers, who informed me that they chose not to access content illegally for ethical reasons, rather than being concerned with surveillance. The last Tweet stems from some of my own personal thoughts on the issue of piracy and Australia’s reign as one of the top pirating countries of the world.

When one uses a peer-to-peer (P2P) torrenting application such as BitTorrent, they are not only being monitored by another user as the data is shared, but are further opening themselves up to the surveillance of their internet service provider (ISP). It is the latter, the role of the ISPs that appears most interesting and problematic. Should ISPs provide user information and internet protocol (IP) addresses to authorities, or is this a breach of privacy? It’s a grey area.

Academic Tsoutsanis (2013) elaborates on this issue of privacy vs piracy and its role in the protection of intellectual property. He explains that ISPs are responsible for making the web go round:

ISPs know who is behind every IP-address they provide- or they at least have sufficient personal data to give proper leads to disclose the real identity of their customer: email addresses, bank accounts and telephone numbers, and often more. When push comes to shove, this is where piracy and privacy lock horns. In the past ten years, the ‘does-privacy-trump-piracy debate’ has continued to stir controversy across the globe, especially in the field of copyright enforcement.

(Tsoutsanis 2013, p. 953)

ISPs are seen to be taking an increasing role in the fight to stop copyright infringement, although their responsibilities are still a little ambiguous. As explained by Katyal (2009), ISPs can become conflicted about who they are liable to protect in piracy disputes. For example, during the Dallas Buyers Club piracy dispute, ISPs were praised for refusing to reveal customer details after the Hollywood studio behind the feud took legal action against Australians who had illegally obtained copies of the film. Meanwhile, other telecommunications and internet companies are finding themselves ultimately responsible for any material accessed through their respective networks.

To summarise, we are surveilled in different ways when we engage with streaming and downloading platforms online. Nothing is anonymous and we need to consider a number of factors before we click that download button.

Thanks for reading! 🙂

– C


Katyal, S 2009, ‘Filtering, piracy surveillance, and disobedience’, Columbia Journal of Law & the Arts, vol. 32, no. 4, pp. 401-426 , retrieved August 21 2016, Social Science Research Network

Tsoutsanis, A 2013, ‘Privacy and piracy in cyberspace: justice for all’, Journal of Intellectual Property Law & Practice, vol. 8, no. 12, pp. 952-6, retrieved August 21 2016, EBSCOHost