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Court Ordered Website Blocks Raise Censorship Worries

A recent United States court ruling sent shockwaves through the internet by requiring all internet service providers (ISPs) across the country to block access to several piracy websites accused of streaming copyrighted movies and TV shows without permission. This groundbreaking decision has stirred fears of increased censorship and questions over the authority of courts to unilaterally impose content restrictions on the internet.

Understanding the Scale of Online Piracy

To appreciate the high stakes that drove this website blocking order, it helps to understand the vast scale of copyright infringement online and the revenue losses plaguing copyright holders.

The film and television industry alone estimates losses of $71 billion globally each year from online piracy. In the US, over 25% of all internet traffic involves pirated content, with streaming and peer-to-peer sharing of movies still prevalent despite crackdowns. From the perspective of motion picture companies and studios, this represents a massive amount of untapped revenue bleeding from their business model.

Music, publishing, and software groups similarly claim piracy undercuts sales and inflicts huge financial damage. With people increasingly turning to the convenience of illegal streaming over legal options, it paints a dire picture of the threats posed by unchecked piracy.

Details Leading to the Court Blocking Order

Seeking to stem losses from pirated streaming, major film studios including Disney, Universal, and Warner Bros. filed three separate lawsuits in a US District Court in Florida during 2021. The lawsuits individually targeted sites,, and for brazenly distributing copyrighted movies without authorization.

According to the complaints, these sites offered thousands of pirated video on demand (VOD) titles while generating profits from ads without paying studios licensing fees. The lawsuits demanded up to $150,000 in statutory damages for each illegally streamed film, plus injunctions to prevent any site operations going forward.

Despite being properly served notice of the lawsuits, the site operators never responded to refute the allegations. This led the court to issue default judgments in all three cases earlier this year. The defaults authorized the massive $150,000 damages per film, determined the sites clearly violated copyright law, and ordered them to permanently cease operations.

So far, the outcome aligned with routine default judgments against websites ignoring infringement lawsuits. But the court took the controversial extra step of including an unprecedented demand in its final orders against the sites.

Court‘s Calls for Sweeping Site Blocking by ISPs

The court injunctions contained language ordering internet service providers across the entire United States to block customer access to the offending domain names and any new variants that arise.

Specifically, the order stated:

“All ISPs providing service in the United States…shall block access to the websites by any technological means available on their systems.”

This amounted to a mandate for nearly 100 named ISPs like AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and T-Mobile to block the infringing sites at the network level for all customers. Such sweeping site blocking by access providers has rarely been pursued in the US before compared to other countries.

Free speech groups immediately sounded alarms over the precedent this sets. The order opens the doorway for further erosion of internet freedom and accountability, Critics warn. The lack of public debate over assigning ISPs centralized control to restrict lawful sites is also troubling, they argue.

Implications of Website Blocking Order

Handing courts unilateral power to compel ISPs to block access to entire swaths of the internet based on allegations against individual sites has chilling implications.

Censorship Slippery Slope

There is concern this can lead down a slippery slope to wider censorship. Once blocking sites becomes normalized, the door opens for an increasing array of groups and industries to petition courts to expand blocks. Judges weighing complex internet policy issues in a vacuum risks arbitrary, unchecked censorship creep.

Undermines Free Markets

Another danger is that site blocking circumvents free market competition. Rather than having to improve quality and pricing of competing legal alternatives, content industries can just eliminate illegal competition through court orders. This can disincentivize innovation in authorized platforms and models.

Violates Fair Use

One problem is courts end up censoring entire websites that may have legal fair use purposes too. And overblocking often ensues, affecting innocent sites beyond the target. Copyright claims also currently face little scrutiny when issuing unilateral takedowns and blocks.

Technical Challenges

There are also debates around whether most ISPs have the technical capabilities to surgically block individual sites in the first place. Implementing the blocks uniformly across networks nationwide presents major challenges.

VPNs Offer Access

The most likely outcome is tech savvy internet users will simply turn to virtual private networks (VPNs) to bypass the blocks anonymously. VPNs are already popular for accessing region-locked content and retaining privacy. Their use will probably surge in the US as users route around court-ordered restrictions. However, lesser-skilled users could lose access unfairly.

Free Speech Priorities

Some critics urge the focus should be on preserving America‘s commitment to free speech rather than introducing Chinese-style censorship architecture. Internet policy nuances may be better handled through public debate in Congress instead of unaccountable court rulings, they argue.

Perspectives on the Ruling

Myriad stakeholders have weighed in on this potentially watershed case:

Copyright Holders – Leading entertainment industry groups strongly praise the blocks as overdue remedy against pilfering sites devastating creators and businesses. They will likely try leveraging the precedent for more site-blocking requests in other courts.

ISPs – Major internet providers protested being forced into content policing roles contrary to net neutrality values. They face public backlash over blocks and installing costly infrastructure without compensation.

Consumer Groups – Digital rights organizations warn granting courts open-ended censorship powers sets alarming precedent that chills free expression and innovation.

Legal Experts – Civil liberties lawyers critique the broad injunction as legally dubious overreach, arguing only Congress has authority to regulate ISPs and speech online.

Users – Internet users accustomed to access freedom chafe at selective censorship decided unilaterally by corporate lawyers and judges. Many resent having site choices restricted and will access blocks through VPNs and other workarounds.

Foreign Governments – State-controlled regimes like China already impose political censorship through site blocking. They may point to US hypocrisy on controlling internet speech despite criticizing authoritarian policies abroad.

Entertainment Sectors – Other creative industries like music, publishing, and software groups will watch eagerly to see if court blocks gain traction for thwarting piracy beyond just video streaming sites. They would likely pursue similar anti-piracy blocking orders if the ruling withstands challenges.

Bypassing Website Blocks

For users determined to access restricted piracy sites despite the court order, several options exist to circumvent the ISP blocks:

VPNs – Using a virtual private network (VPN) tunnels your traffic through servers in another country, effectively bypassing ISP blocking measures. VPNs like NordVPN and ExpressVPN are commonly used for accessing geo-restricted content already.

Proxy Services – Similarly, routing connections through proxy servers housed internationally can bypass blocks. Proxy sites have the benefits of often being free, albeit slower than paid VPN services.

Tor – The Tor browser directs traffic through an encrypted network of volunteer relays, preserving anonymity and defeating most site blocks. But Tor tends to be slower than VPNs and is overkill for many.

Caching Sites – Special caching websites archive content from blocked sites to allow indirect access to the underlying media. However, these platforms constantly play cat-and-mouse with content owners.

Alternative Domains – Since blocks target individual domain names, pirated streaming sites can just shift their operations to new unblocked domains and continue as usual. But this involves downtime transitioning sites each time.

Search Engines – Blocks often fail to remove site listings from search engines like Google and Bing. Savvy users can simply find unblocked proxy or mirror sites via search to access blocked destinations.

Changed DNS – Using third-party DNS servers like OpenDNS or Google DNS bypasses ISP blocks, though this option is fairly technical for average users.

Promoting Legal Viewing Options

Rather than playing whack-a-mole trying to block piracy one site at a time, a better long-term approach is making legal content more affordable and convenient to access. Here are tips for finding shows and movies through legit platforms:

  • Check your local library for free access to streaming apps like Kanopy and Hoopla that offer commercial-free movies and shows without subscriptions required.

  • Search Google or JustWatch for the official source before assuming content is only available illegally. Type in a movie title and “watch online” to find legal options.

  • Split subscription costs with family or friends on services like Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, and HBO Max to save money on access to top content.

  • Use free streaming apps like Tubi, Pluto TV, and Freevee to watch thousands of movies and shows legally supported by ads instead of piracy.

  • Consider cheaper on-demand rental/purchase options on platforms like Vudu, iTunes, and Amazon for new releases rather than pirated versions.

  • Take advantage of discounted skinny bundle live TV packages from providers like Sling TV, Hulu Live, YouTube TV, and DirecTV Stream for robust channel lineups.

  • Leverage free streaming trials with new providers to occasionally switch services and watch fresh content selections without ongoing costs.

With some savvy shopping and sharing of accounts, you can gain affordable access to vast entertainment catalogs legally without resorting to risky piracy websites vulnerable to malware and privacy violations.

Controversy Far From Over

This groundbreaking ISP website blocking case has alarming implications depending on one‘s views on censorship, copyright law, free speech, and judicial authority over the internet. With staunch opinions on all sides, the controversy seems far from settled.

Powerful entertainment industry forces will likely push to expand site blocking through courts absent stronger copyright laws from Congress. Meanwhile, digital rights groups will vigorously resist and spotlight any overblocking that censors lawful speech. The legal basis for the injunction will also undergo intense scrutiny on appeal.

This pivotal case bears watching closely as it winds through higher courts. The ramifications of this decision could profoundly impact the internet landscape and policies governing access for years to come. Those on all sides hope cooler heads eventually prevail to strike the right balance between enforcing copyright protections, preserving free expression, and empowering consumer choice.


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