News Commentary

Taking a look at the Philippines' digital piracy problem

Paco A. Pangalangan - Philstar.com
Taking a look at the Philippines' digital piracy problem
Artist's rendition of a cyber crime

Digital piracy is on the rise globally, and the Philippines is one of the Asia Pacific region’s leading consumers.

A recent YouGov 2022 Piracy Landscape Survey commissioned by the Asia Video Industry Association’s Coalition Against Piracy revealed that the Philippines is not only among the highest consumers of pirated content in the region but also the lowest consumer of legitimate content among those countries included in the survey. 

Based on their findings, 61% of Filipinos said they’d consumed pirated content. 44% said they’d consumed it through social media and messaging apps like Facebook and TikTok. Who here hasn’t come across those movie snippets on their feed with distorted audio, aspect ratios, or playback speeds, which I imagine, are done to avoid or delay platforms from taking them down.

Some users also share illegally downloaded materials or download links via messaging apps like Telegram and Viber. Others turn to streaming and torrent sites or use illicit streaming devices and apps which are widely available for purchase online or on virtual marketplaces.

There are many reasons piracy is on the rise. COVID-19 is one. There were reports that torrenting and streaming sites saw site traffic spike due to the pandemic lockdowns around the globe. Unsurprising, since movie theaters were closed and people were stuck at home hungry for TV shows and movies to binge. 

Unlike in other countries, mobility restrictions in the Philippines were only recently relaxed. The fact that Filipinos have been cooped up much longer than those elsewhere may be one reason why the consumption of pirated content here is higher.

Another reason piracy is surging is because of the growing number of streaming services. Back in the day, Netflix was the only streaming service in town. Then, you’d subscribe to Netflix and practically have access to all streaming content, all in one place.

Nowadays, though, almost everyone is offering streaming services, and they all have great content. Aside from Netflix, there’s exclusive content available through Prime Video, Hulu, Disney Plus, Apple TV Plus, Peacock and HBO GO. Heck, even CNN thought it could jump into the streaming scene.

Individually subscribing to each and every one of these services would just cost too much. So many, even those already paying for legal streaming services, end up pirating content they want from the other platforms.  

Aside from the growing number of streaming services out there contributing to the spike in piracy, for Filipinos, the availability of these services locally could be another factor that contributes to the country’s high consumption. 

The same YouGov survey I cited earlier showed that 81% of Filipinos actually consume content through legitimate platforms. This figure means many Filipinos are willing to pay for content they like. Unfortunately, even if people are willing to fork over subscription money, not all streaming services are offered in the country. 

The best example of this is probably Disney Plus. The service’s catalog is filled with animated classics, modern blockbusters, and enough new and exclusive content to fill a whole cinematic universe. Yet, there is no way to legally stream their content if you live in the Philippines since the service isn’t currently being offered here. If more of these streaming services were offered in the country, many Filipinos would subscribe instead of illegally streaming their content.

Piracy is complex, and many factors contribute to its rise and fall. Nevertheless, its economic and security impact is clear. In fact, around half of the respondents of the YouGov survey said they were aware that piracy results in others profiting from content that is not theirs and that it enables pirates to defraud society by evading taxes. It is estimated that the movie and TV industry will lose $51.6 billion to online piracy by the end of the year.

Filipino respondents also knew that consuming pirated content increases the risk of malware infections on people’s devices. It's been uncovered that pirated content is used to distribute malware to the downloading computer. In effect, pirated content exposes those who consume it directly to other cyber crimes such as phishing, identity theft, and even more dangerous child pornography sites because of its unsecured nature.

Site blocking is a widely practiced method around the world to counter digital piracy and reduce it’s a country’s exposure to its economic and security risks. Site blocking targets sites that provide infringing content and prevents users within the country from accessing them. By curbing access to these infringing sites, site blocking encourages consumers to use legal sites and services instead.

But to be adequately implemented here, the Philippines needs enabling policies that allow regulators and service providers to effectively and efficiently implement site blocking. A consumer rights group called CitizenWatch Philippines has long advocated for legislation-backed solutions to combating piracy.

One of the recent calls of the group has been for the Senate to ratify the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). RCEP is a regional free trade agreement that includes a chapter that aims to align and streamline processes in securing Intellectual Property rights. It also has provisions calling for more robust anti-piracy measures and stricter electronic Intellectual property rights protections. 

There are also calls to amend the Intellectual Property Code to give the IPOPHIL greater power to enable regulators and industry players to block infringing sites. According to CitizenWatch, other countries saw the use of pirated sites drop by as much as 64% when enabling site-blocking policies were created.

The passage of site-blocking legislation seems to be the key to curbing digital piracy in the country, but we may have to wait a bit longer for enabling legislation to pass. The 18th Congress is currently on break. Session will resume later this month, but only for a couple of weeks. This time may be enough for the Senate to ratify RCE, but we will have to wait for the newly elected members of the 19th Congress to settle in before any new bills can be passed.

Digital piracy is an old and persistent problem, and I’m keen to see how the new government will address it.

Paco A. Pangalangan is the executive director of think tank Stratbase ADR Institute.


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