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Pirate streaming crackdown: Italy leads the way with hefty fines for viewers

Watching your favorite TV shows and movies online for free, without any legal hassle, is what online piracy offers to many people. But this offer may not last long.

From taking down file-sharing giants like The Pirate Bay (which still manages to survive) to busting illegal IPTV streaming services, authorities around the world are escalating the battle with online piracy. Until now, however, the focus of this crusade has been on the providers of illegal content, not the consumers. For the most part, regular users have been left alone, and the only negative consequence they had to face was the loss of access to their favorite streaming sites.

But things are changing, with authorities now turning their attention to the users themselves.

Italy steps up war on piracy

One of the first countries to take a harsher stance against the users of pirate sites is Italy. Starting from August 8, 2023, Italian residents who watch pirate streams risk racking up a fine of up to 5,000 euros. The fine can be imposed under the new amendment to the copyright law, which has been recently approved by Italy’s telecom regulator, AGCOM.

The law has expanded AGCOM’s powers to take on illegal streams: the regulator no longer has to get a judge’s blessing to block them, but can itself issue orders to online service providers. Specifically, AGCOM can order ISPs, search engines and social media platforms to block the resolution of domain names and the routing of network traffic to the IP addresses of sites illegally streaming content like sports events or concerts. After receiving the order, ISPs must make the sites inaccessible to Italian users within a narrow window of 30 minutes or face fines. They must also report to the Rome Public Prosecutor’s Office on the measures they have taken and “communicate any data or information in their possession that can identify the providers of the illegally distributed content.”

The amendment also increases the fines for the unauthorized use and acquisition of protected works or materials to 5,000 euros for repeat offenders. For a first offense, the fine is 154 euros. Although this clause seems to be mainly aimed at the distributors, viewers are not out of the woods either and may be subject to hefty fines.

As for how serious the authorities are about catching the casual viewers of pirated streams — after all, going after the “little guy” has never been good optics for either the police or copyright holders — we would not put it past them. In fact, the Italian police have cracked down on pirate stream watchers in the past.
Last year, the Italian financial police, the Guardia di Finanza, took the pains to locate and send fines to the homes of subscribers of pirate IPTV services. The police did it after taking down 500 web resources and the associated 40 Telegram channels distributing illegal streams, and implementing “a real-time tracking system” on the seized servers. Identified subscribers received letters informing them that they have to pay 154 euros for a first-time offense, or 1,032 euros for a repeat offense.

Now that the maximum fine has been quintupled, there’s a chance that the police will become even more zealous in enforcing the law.

Is streaming pirated content illegal across Europe?

Downloading files from an unauthorized source, such as a pirate website or file-sharing network, has long been a crime in the EU. An EU-wide directive passed in 2001 harmonized copyright laws across the EU and explicitly made downloading from pirate sources illegal.

However, that law left a loophole. It made an exception for when works are only temporarily copied, that is, when the copies are “transient or incidental” in nature. This clause created some confusion and ambiguity, making streaming pirated content, as opposed to downloading it, a sort of legal gray area. But as more people moved from downloading shows to streaming them, and as the pirate sports live-streaming services took off, regulators took an ax to this loophole.

In 2017, the highest court in the EU clarified that watching copyrighted works from illegal streaming websites is just as illegal as downloading them. The court said that viewing is not covered by the exception to the law because the copies that are being created are not an essential part of a technological process and also deprive the creators’ of their rightful income. This ruling made it clear that streaming pirated content is not a legal gray area, but a clear-cut violation of the law.

Case closed? Not quite. The laws may be clear, but how they are enforced is not and varies from country to country. It’s up to local authorities to decide how hard or easy they want to go on consumers. And we have to keep in mind that they have to balance their resources and priorities. Not surprisingly, most are choosing to go after the big fish rather than the small fry by focusing on illegal streaming services. Tracking down individual users can be a costly and technically challenging exercise since their IP addresses are not usually stored by pirate sites for long periods of time, so in most cases viewers get a pass.

While authorities in many countries have been lenient on individual viewers, Italy is taking a more proactive approach, and others may take a cue from it. But Italy is not the only country to take action against the “little guy.” When it comes to punishing regular users, Germany has long stood out for its aggressive approach.

Germany: a hell on earth for torrenting fans

Germany is probably the worst country to torrent from. There is no shortage of anecdotal evidence of people moving to Germany being slapped with hundreds of dollars in fines because they forgot to delete a torrent client or turn on a VPN. Under German copyright law, both downloading and uploading are illegal without the author’s permission, but uploading is generally the one that can get you in trouble. Using services like torrent clients automatically means that you’re sharing (uploading) the file every time you download it.

Fines for copyright infringement in Germany can climb as high as several thousand dollars. One explanation why German users cannot catch a break is that the law is enforced by private law sharks who specialize in sending out copyright infringement notices to users en masse on behalf of movie studios. This practice has sometimes been criticized as “copyright trolling.” It is so widespread that it has been weaponized by law firms that do not even hold copyright for the works and is exploited by outright scammers. Sometimes it may not even be a real law firm, but a fraudster who is sending fake copyright notices that can be laced with viruses or malware via email.

What about the rest of the world?

Outside of the EU, copyright enforcement laws may vary significantly. For instance, in the UK watching pirate streams is illegal and in theory can be punished under the 1988 Copyright Act (section 297) or under the 2006 Fraud Act. The latter makes it an offense “for any person, by any dishonest act, to obtain services for which payment is required, with intent to avoid payment.” But in practice, there’s little likelihood that these laws will be wielded against regular users — only if to make a point (which, however, cannot be ruled out).

In the US, the Protecting Lawful Streaming Act of 2020 has strengthened punishments against pirate streaming services, but notably not the users. The act made the provision of pirate streaming service a felony (before it was a misdemeanor), punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The authors of the bill specifically made it clear that the law “will not apply to internet users.”

Protect yourself from the risks

Italy’s move to target viewers of pirate streams could be a harbinger of stricter copyright enforcement in other EU countries and probably beyond. This poses several risks for users: first, identifying stream watchers requires the government to monitor users’ online activity, which may threaten your privacy; second, you may face legal consequences such as fines and lawsuits if you don’t protect your anonymity online.

In addition, watching pirated streams (which we don’t encourage anyone to do, especially if it’s illegal in your country) can expose you to malware, viruses, and other cyber threats: these sites often contain malicious links that could steal your personal information, or worse, infect your computer with viruses and even ransomware.

So how do you protect yourself from these risks? One of the options is to use a VPN and AdGuard ad blocker. A VPN will encrypt your Internet traffic and hide your IP address, making it difficult for anyone to track or identify you online. With a VPN, you can bypass censorship or other restrictions that prevent you from viewing certain content in your country. As for AdGuard Ad Blocker, it will not only serve as a content blocker, but also prevent tracking and warn you when you’re about to navigate to a malicious website or follow a potentially dangerous link.

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