A Game of Torrents: Russians Struggle with Piracy-free Internet

A self-organized “internet strike” aimed at drawing attention to a new Russian anti-internet piracy law [GV] that came into effect in August was a qualified success, reports [ru] RosKomSvoboda, an internet-freedom watchdog group associated with the Russian Pirate Party.

On August 1, websites participating in the “strike” shut down their operations, replacing their front pages with a blackout that would either last for 24 hours or a preset time-period. The scripts facilitating this were developed by volunteers and were made [ru] available [ru] to webmasters through Habrahabr.ru, a popular RuNet tech community akin to Slashdot.org. Other websites simply added banners (also available on Habrahabr [ru]) which linked to a Russian Public Initiative [GV] petition [ru] for the repeal of the contentious law.

A cute buddy on the splash page blocking music downloading website Zaytsev.net. Screenshot.

A bunny looks in dismay at the splash page blocking the music streaming website Zaycev.net. Screenshot.

The petition offers a good gauge of the success of the strike. As seen on the chart below, before August 1, signatures languished at around 58,000 and were growing at a relatively slow pace. On August 1 there was a spike in voting activity that lasted for 3 days and added over 20,000 signatures, after which the voting returned to the slower steady state:

Chart of signatures for the online petition asking to repeal the anti-piracy law. by roi.f1p.net, Screenshot, August 9, 2013.

Chart of signatures for the online petition asking to repeal the anti-piracy law. by roi.f1p.net, Screenshot, August 9, 2013.

As of the writing of this post, the petition is less than a thousand votes away from the goal of 100,000, after which it will be forwarded to the Russian parliament for review.

RosKomSvoboda reports that at least 552 websites participated in installing the banner, and another 735 had installed the blocking script by the day of the strike. Some of these were major websites like Rutracker.org (Russia's largest torrent tracker), the social network Mail.ru, music streaming site Zaycev.net, and Lurkmore.to, the embattled [GV] satirical Wikipedia. Glaringly absent from the communal effort, however, were internet giants like the search engine Yandex.ru and Russia's largest social network VKontakte, which had actively voiced their opposition to the law before it passed. Certainly, if either were to shut down for a full day, increased awareness would not be measured in the thousands of people (of course there is a also chance that such a turn would lead to riots).

Meanwhile, there are forces outside of activism that could make Russian internet users more aware of new regulations. Just days after they came into effect, people began noticing [ru] that accessing their favorite media content has become problematic:

The purge of torrents has begun. Yesterday I couldn't download new episodes of “The Newsroom” (all the torrents are closed), and a few other shows.

Indeed, starting with August 1, Rutracker.org removed many of its torrents at the request of “A-media,” a Russian firm that has purchased the distribution rights to a swath of foreign television content. The full list of torrents taken down from Rutracker includes at least 40 TV-shows, covering pretty much the entire HBO lineup — True Blood, Game of Thrones, Newsroom, Girls, Veep, Rome, etc, as well as some other critics’ favorites like Breaking Bad and Homeland.

"Closed at the request of the copyright owner." A torrent for Season 1 of Game of Thrones on a mirror of Rutracker.org. Screenshot.

“Closed at the request of the copyright owner.” A torrent page for Season 1 of Game of Thrones on a mirror of the Rutracker.org forums. Screenshot.

This met with widespread indignation, especially because for many Russians “pirating” these shows is the only way to gain access to them in good quality, decent translation, and on time. A fan explained [ru]:

Знаете почему в интернете очень много людей смотрит зарубежные сериалы, иногда даже те которые выходят у нас на ТВ (хотя таких очень мало)? Потому что в интернете этими сериалами занимаются люди, которые умеют этим заниматься и хотят. Потому что когда выходит новая серия – уже через 1-2 дня она озвучивается очень классной группой переводчиков и появляется в сети.

You know why so many people watch foreign TV shows on the internet, sometimes even those that come out on [Russian] television (although there are few of those)? Because on the internet the people that do these shows are people who know how do it and like doing it. Because when a new episode comes out, in a day or two it has been dubbed by a great group of translators and appears on the web.

LiveJournal blogger haeldar, at one point an associate of the tomato terrorist [GV] Murz, echoed [ru] these points:

[…] мы такие “жадные дети” и хотим смотреть “Игру Престолов” в переводе “Lostfilm-tv”, а не говноделов из “АМЕДИА”. И в тот вечер, когда это удобно нам, а не им. И в качестве 1080p.

[…] we are such “greedy children” and want to watch Game of Thrones translated by “Lostfilm-tv”, no the sh*t-for-brains from “A-media.” And on the night when we want to, not when its convenient for them. And in 1080p quality.

Whether such outrage leads to any activist successes remains to be seen. After all, there are many ways around the shut downs. One blogger pointed out [ru] the futility of trying to block anything in a world-wide market:

Самое главное – чего они в итоге добьются? Ну будут все качать с пайратбэя, а потом отдельно звуковые дорожки (кому надо) с сайтов переводчиков.

The main thing — what will they achieve? So people will download from the Pirate Bay, and then separately get audio tracks (if they need them) from translator websites.

Twitter user ‏@pashakolesoff tweeted [ru] the same point somewhat more harshly:

[If] they shut down TV-show torrents in Russian – learn English and watch the originals. No one's done away with the Pirate Bay.

At the same time that foreign shows are being targeted, copyright owners have also struck at domestic, Russian-made shows. On August 7, The Russian media firm “Seichas,” for example, got a favorable court ruling [ru] from the Moscow City Court against the torrent tracker Rutor.org for hosting links to its TV-show “Interns.” Much like Rutracker, Rutor has complied [ru] with the request to remove the offending torrent files from its website.

People seem to be much less upset over this new development than over the loss of “The Game of Thrones,” however. Twitter user @Scinic summed up this point in a tweet [ru] (retweeted 596 times) that riffs on the justifications for the anti-piracy law, the disdain people hold for the Russian film industry, and the ubiquitous references to the HBO hit:

They say that torrents are killing Russian film. House Greyjoy would answer: “What is dead may never die.”

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