Banning of set-top boxes in Singapore: new laws need to be clear

January 18th, 2019 | by Alfred Siew
Banning of set-top boxes in Singapore: new laws need to be clear
PHOTO: Pexels (Creative Commons)

If you asked someone on the street what an Android TV box was, you would likely get a mixed response.

Some would tell you it’s for streaming pirated TV from online sources. You know, the boxes you buy online or from stores in Sim Lim Square, for example.

Others would tell you it’s just a regular set-top box running Google’s Android software that lets you stream legit services such as Netflix or YouTube on your TV.

Indeed, the phrase Android TV refers to Google’s operating system for a particular series of set-top boxes. StarHub, which launched a new streaming service last year, is using one of these boxes. So, yes, that’s also an Android TV box.

In a nutshell, this is the conundrum facing the authorities in Singapore after a three-year review of the country’s copyright laws.

The Ministry of Law and the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore yesterday said they are seeking to craft new regulations that would make it an offence to make or sell set-top boxes that stream videos from pirated sources online.

Technically, however, there isn’t a clear line between one box that streams from pirated sites and another that streams from, say, StarHub or Netflix.

These set-top boxes are simply like your smartphone or PC. You can go to a pirated site on them or you can head to a legit one. The components and indeed the software on them are often identical.

So, how do the authorities separate one from another, when they table their proposed changes in Parliament later this year?

If they do not define the offending devices narrowly enough, they risk outlawing all manners of set-top boxes that are made for legitimate uses.

It was easier to ban certain devices in the past, say, chips installed on game consoles to defeat the copyright protection and let people play pirated games. Those can be easily defined but Android set-top boxes? The differences are not as clear.

One way forward, you could argue, is to ban boxes that come with software or apps that automatically link to pirated sites online. That seems to be one characteristic of offending boxes here.

Or, you could, as the authorities here have suggested, ban those boxes that are openly advertised as providing some sort of link to a pirated video service online.

However, what’s to stop such a seller from simply not advertising these “benefits” and just slipping in an installed app? Rather like how some PCs were sold in the early days with pirated software installed on them.

Plus, what’s to stop a user of a regular set-top box from downloading an app that lets him in to the pirated content as well? Should that box be banned too?

Okay, you can block these sites through Internet service providers (ISPs), as has happened here, but what happens when the Internet addresses are changed, as pirates always shift their game?

The thing about an app, which users can simply download and install on a device, is that it can point to the different Internet servers that a pirated service uses.

That is tough for ISPs to keep blocking, without continually doing the bidding of copyright owners all the time. Who’s going to pay for that extra effort?

Is that an ISP’s job? Or should rights owners stump up the money to help fight the scourge of piracy?

There is also the problem of defining what is unauthorised content, which will make some of these boxes illegal in future. Would this also include stuff that are geographically not allowed here, say, certain shows that users now use VPN (virtual private networking) services to access?

Now, more than ever, is the best time to use the carrot instead of the stick in the fight against piracy. At no other time has content been so affordable and so easily accessible.

Why should users continue to watch pirated stuff when so much legit content is easily available via Netflix, TVB Now or pay-TV operators for as low as a few dollars a month? That should be the main argument.

Let’s not forget about cyber security. By installing apps that are unsafe and quite likely linked to criminal syndicates, users are exposing their devices to malware.

Whether this is in the form of spam ads or something worse, users should be aware of the risks of viewing pirated stuff instead of paying a few bucks for what they want.

Sadly, the education part of the anti-piracy effort seems to have taken a back seat in recent years, as rights owners turn to tactics that are all too familiar – lobbying and legal threats.

The fight over such set-top boxes first caught the public’s attention last year, when a number of rights owners sought a private prosecution against two companies and their directors for selling legitimate set-bop boxes that gave users unbridled access to copyright programmes, according to Today.

That rightly served as a warning to those selling such boxes. At the same time, with the attention on the issue, there was an opportunity to educate users, who ultimately have to stop watching pirated stuff, one way or another, for things to change.

Unfortunately, that opportunity to educate seems to have been missed. Instead, the headlines are once again on an unpopular effort to restrict a technology that has far more uses than for piracy. Collateral damage? Too bad, rights owners might tell you.

In such a situation, you can hardly blame people for not believing in their struggle. From trying to stop the sale of DVD players meant for another region to installing spyware that secretly reported back on users, rights owners have an unpleasant track record of fighting against users, many of whom are their customers.

For regulators, bringing enhanced protection for copyright owners cannot mean that so many other legitimate uses are disadvantaged as a result.

In defining what’s a pirated set-top box, or indeed any device that is illegal, they have to be clear that they are targeting only people and things that are intentionally involved in infringing copyright.

UPDATE at 18/01/2019 3:35pm: The article has been updated to refer to the authorities’ proposed regulations on set-top boxes as well as a question on the issue of unauthorised content.


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