Where tech aligns

A New Golden Age of Piracy

The greatest anti-piracy measure was Netflix being an easy one-stop-shop for almost any movie. But as Netflix declines, the pirates return.

There is another you, a shadow-self that’s constructed  with your interests and inferred preferences. It’s a wretched homunculus built out of analytics and tracking data. No matter which way the light hits it, the shadows it casts are never quite right. It’s always growing, fed each time we check our phone, or when a Bluetooth beacon at the grocery store calculates how long you stand in front of the cheese before making a selection. It’s a form of technological predestination, a drudgery of spoon-fed content that seeks neither to enlighten nor offend. If it were shown to you, would you recognize it? Or would you find it grotesque? 

Piracy offers – if not a full escape – a dampening of participation in the data industrial complex. Starving the beast is a challenge, and decoupling from these services is inconvenient for a reason, but for people more conscious of their privacy it can be hard to ignore all for the sake of convenience.

Digital piracy is a constant. It will never fully go away, but it ebbs and flows. After Netflix pivoted into direct streaming back in 2007, much of the allure of media piracy started to fade away for the casual consumer. It succeeded where more conventional anti-piracy measures could not. Netflix offered a one-stop-shop viewing experience that was a more convenient alternative to piracy, and it was at a price point that felt reasonable for what you were getting. Now, fifteen years past the inception of Netflix’s streaming program, the landscape has totally changed. Corporations have turned to developing inventive new ways of extracting more from their customers while delivering a worse product; prices are up, commercials are returning, availability is locked based on region and service, and in some cases content is disappearing altogether. In light of these developments, even the more casual consumer might begin to consider seeking alternatives.

Depending on what era of the internet you grew up in, a return to piracy can mean a few different things: for those that grew up before streaming took off it could mean re-downloading μTorrent and going to The Pirate Bay, only to learn that the world you once knew isn’t relevant anymore, that piracy evolved and moved on without you. For those who grew up in a post-streaming world, often it can involve using websites with “.bz” domains fitted with tabjacking malware in order to watch slowly buffering anime at 480p. These examples are not comprehensive, but do demonstrate a difference in mindset and methodology between the disparate ranks of the digital seas. 

Gabe Newell, the founder of video game distribution platform Steam, stated in 2011 that piracy is a service issue. He was correct then, and is largely still correct now. But back when he made this point the issue was a lot simpler: there were fewer online aggregates that consumers could turn to for their media or software needs. Worldwide there are now over 200 different streaming platforms, with new ones cropping up all the time. They’ve got some of the things you like, but never all, and are stuffed with filler content that is hit or miss in quality. In order to build a comprehensive catalog, one would need to have four or five different subscriptions depending on their interests, racking up the monthly charges for services that only see occasional use. For many, streaming was initially an alternative to paying a cable subscription or renting, but in the quest for convenience and simplicity, we have allowed for the creation of an unregulated media empire that dictates what we can and can’t have access to. It takes control out of the hands of the end-user, allowing corporations to determine the permanence of a work for those going through the proper channels. 

The digital fulfillment business model is ingenious, if not a bit insidious. People pay for a license to watch a movie, or listen to a song, or use a piece of software, but they never truly own it. The files might live on their computer, but in such a way that they’re impossible to utilize without being signed in to an application. A movie purchased on YouTube only works when viewing through the YouTube app, its existence hinging upon Google’s whims and the continued existence of their service. Since nothing is ever owned by the recipient, companies can sell the same product to the same recipients again and again. On top of that, data about what you watched, when you watched it, what device you watched it on, can be purchased by third parties in order to advertise products to you based on your interests. Doing things the “right” way means partaking in systems that reduce people to nothing more than data to be manipulated and sold.

While it has no upfront cost, piracy does demand something more precious than money: time and attention. In a consumer landscape built around the idea of induced FOMO and immediate gratification, this process seems antithetical to how corporations have trained us to consume content. Building a library takes countless hours, and sometimes you have to wait weeks, maybe even months, for the thing you’re looking to download to become available. It has the potential to instill a more thoughtful approach to content consumption: rather than looking to the algorithmically curated mirror-self to tell you what you like, one must venture out and discover it. There is no lazy river of tangentially related music that keeps playing once the album ends, not unless you go out there and curate it on your own time.It harkens back to days spent sitting at the family computer for hours with a stack of CD-Rs, listening to the radio and trawling through the depths of Limewire, hoping beyond hope that the album which took three days to download is actually the one you were looking for. It takes a passive task and makes it active, curating a collection that feels personal and true, and maybe most importantly: it lets people choose who, and what, they support. Payouts for musicians on streaming services are abysmal, Spotify pays artists $0.003/stream on average, requiring 3000-plus streams to make ten dollars. To take that same ten dollars and every now and then buy an album to add to your collection has a far more immediate impact, and instills a feeling of control that can’t be offered by streaming sites. 

There aren’t many ways to make money off of piracy. People manage it, of course, by recreating the streaming model: selling access to servers that are loaded up with all the content people want in a nice convenient setting. But largely the idea of making a profit from piracy is against the core ethos. This runs counter to the current “Web3” push, wherein individualistic profit-seeking reigns, and “community” just happens to mean “other people I can try to make money off of.” If you spend any time in piracy-centered spaces you can catch glimpses of the internet as it once was, with communities that don’t all serve as a vector for someone to try and sell you something.

The desire for an alternative system permeates so many of the discussions around media consumption and internet usage in general, but we’re unlikely to see the downfall of the online media empire anytime soon. However, as big tech pushes toward more anti-consumer practices the spell begins to break for those unable, or unwilling, to subject themselves to systems which seek to capitalize on every aspect of the human experience. The first step might be going on eBay just to see how much an old click-wheel iPod would cost, extrapolating from there until suddenly you’re buying some hard drives, setting up your own server, and canceling all your subscriptions.

It’s hard to anticipate what, if any, reaction a piracy renaissance will garner. The companies behind streaming and digital content have very little incentive to change and, short of governmental regulation, there aren’t mechanisms in place to encourage them to adopt better practices. The beast keeps growing, unchecked, looming over all that we do. The data collected on us can be used for purposes beyond our imagining, by people we’ve never even heard of, in places we’ll never see. And all the worse, we’re the ones funding it.

It can be challenging to imagine a world where things get better, to see the future through a lens that does not trend toward the dystopian, but there are people out there each day who make the world they wish to see. With governments and corporations marching hand-in-hand to destroy notions of personal privacy, piracy can be a tool for defying algorithmically decided fates, to starve the beast and break free from a cycle that reduces our worth and personhood to nothing more than perceived monetary value.