We’ve all done it; clicked that thumbnail on that site and excitedly waited for the latest episode of our favourite show to start playing. For free…

Are we doing something wrong? I mean, we’re not downloading anything. And we’re certainly not sharing any illegal content…Well, the situation is not as black and white as you’d think.

Piracy from online streaming platforms is a massive headache to the industry, worsened by the rise in high-speed Internet. And those partaking in it should start to look over their shoulder.

According to the Global Piracy Insights Report for 2017 by London-based piracy tracking company Muso, people visited piracy sites over 179 billion times globally last year. This gigantic figure includes both illegal streaming as well as direct downloads and torrent sites.

By far the biggest baddie in the bunch was the US, where over 20 billion visits to pirating sites happened, trailed by Russia (14 billion) and India (9.7 billion).

A changing pattern

The Star notes that the actual “cost” of piracy on the film and entertainment industry is actually hard to pinpoint, but the MPAA, America’s motion picture association, did release an official report on this a few years ago estimating that the swashbucklers’ shenanigans set back the US economy by a massive $20,5 billion every year.

Despite the fact that people have been accessing movies and TV shows for free for years now, the way they have been doing it has become more sophisticated in recent years. Since “hard-goods piracy” like physical DVDs is a thing of the past, the focus turned to illegal streaming and downloading, both eased along by developments in high-speed internet access.

“The effect of online piracy on both the film and television industry is significant,” a spokesperson for the Motion Picture Association in Singapore recently told The Star. “Consumers looking to watch a film or television show online will often turn to illegal websites, rather than those offering authorised versions.”

Streaming allows users to view their favourite content whenever they want, with no need to download anything. And the worst part is that a lot of people don’t know the difference between a legal downloading platform, like Netflix, and those that are not.

Complicating matters are legislation surrounding what makes a platform “illegal”.

On the (il)legality of streaming

In the UK especially there seems to be some confusion surrounding this. After the “landmark” case in June 2014 where Meltwater, a media service company, was sued by several media groups, including the UK-based Newspaper Licensing Agency (NLA), the legality of streaming became hazier than ever.

Basically, the Court if Justice of the European Union ruled against the NLA saying that watching copyrighted content online is not copyright infringement. This is because the copyrighted content is only temporarily stored on the user’s computer, and that makes it exempt from copyright laws.

But as Jim Martin from TechAdvisor points out, this doesn’t also mean that the owners and operators of these streaming websites that makes this content available are also acting within the law. At least under European Law, they can be prosecuted.

Also in Malaysia does copyright legislation dating back to 1987 make it illegal for anyone to run a streaming or torrent site. If convicted, offenders face a hefty penalty and can even be imprisoned. Despite the legislation, Malaysians still pirate like crazy, turning the nation into the second largest sharer of illegal content in South-East Asia. For the Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission, the situation is so dire they fear a further increase in piracy will lead to the country being blacklisted from future film releases.

“As we are moving forward to become a smart nation and entering the era of the Internet of Things, I believe that we are supposed to be less dependent on regulating bodies and start regulating ourselves,” security and enforcement sector chief officer for the MCMC, Zulkarnain Mohd Yasin, added hopefully.

Those pesky set-top boxes

However, the biggest hurdle for both Malaysian and European lawmakers currently is the use of so-called set-top boxes that provides users with easy access to illegal streaming services.

In the UK especially a lot of the focus has been on Kodi, a free media player that allows users to stream content over the internet. While the platform itself is legal, it is illegal to sell set-top boxes that come pre-installed with third-party plug-ins and add-ons that let users stream pirated content to their TV via Kodi.

For years retailers of this illicit version of the software moved under the radar of copyright enforcers, but now the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT) has launched a major crackdown on the sales of these “fully loaded” boxes. Since then both eBay and Amazon have banned the sale of these devices on their platforms.

While FACT and other law enforcement authorities are trying to put a dent in the distribution of these boxes, your average Joe sitting at home watching an illegal stream of a Premier League match remains mostly unaffected because none of these groups has the resources available to hunt down individual users.

“When it comes to catching those involved in piracy, it is not our strategy to prosecute the end user,” the Federation recently explained to The Telegraph. “Our interest lies in identifying, disrupting and if necessary prosecuting the individuals who defraud the creative industries by knowingly stealing content.”

The unknown known

FACT acknowledges that the end user often doesn’t even realise he or she is streaming content illegally. Many streaming sites comes with such a polished and professional look they seem totally legitimate, even carrying advertisements from recognised brands.

A solid rule of thumb, if you’re wondering if the platform you’re using is legitimate or not, is to notice if they offer up their content for free. If yes, then they’re probably illegal.

Besides harming the film and television industry, FACT also warns that these streaming services often makes users’ computers vulnerable to viruses and other harmful content. “This includes pop-ups, viruses, malware, spyware, identity theft and illicit material,” the federation warned.

For now, users of these streaming sites and set-top boxes are not being prosecuted by authorities. But as the real impact these services have on the industry become more and more apparent, legislation surrounding streaming versus downloading can change in a heartbeat.