Content Piracy as Hybrid Warfare

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War, unfortunately, is as old as history. Usually violent, involving the use of force to compel or resist, in recent years the nature of warfare has begun to change. While physical force is still part of the military’s repertoire, today we are moving into an era of so-called “hybrid warfare” or “grey zone” strategies. There are various dimensions of this new phenomenon, including social media disinformation campaigns (particularly to manipulate election results or to create internal dissension), cyber-attacks, use of remote vehicles and drones, use of supposedly “private armies” to seize territories, economic measures such as sanctions but going beyond sanctions to include disruption of supply chains, and other measures that fall short of outright use of force, or are “plausibly deniable”.  There is a good discussion of the topic here.

Good examples of some hybrid warfare measures are Russian meddling in the US Presidential election campaign of 2016, Russian use of proxy forces in the eastern Ukraine, various forms of cyberwarfare employed by the US (to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program) and others, such as China, to access classified information, and more recently the drone attacks on Saudi oil production facilities back in September. All fingers pointed to Iran as the perpetrator of this attack, although it denied the charge and another (Iranian-backed) group, the Houthi rebels in Yemen, claimed responsibility. Whether that attack was “plausibly deniable”–or “implausibly deniable”–is an open question.

Much of this hybrid warfare has been taking place in the Middle East, a perennial powder-keg. Just about every country in the region is at someone else’s throat over one issue or another, or is in one form of loose alliance or other. Iran and Saudi Arabia (along of course with Israel) are the main current protagonists but Iraq, Syria and the Gulf States are other key players in the ongoing power struggle.

The Gulf States–Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates—are like a hem sewn on the edges of the Arabian Peninsula, which is dominated by Saudi Arabia. One of the Gulf States in particular sticks in the craw of the Saudis. This is Qatar, one of the world’s largest producers of natural gas and enormously wealthy, the home of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and the sponsor of the controversial TV network Al-Jazeera. The Al-Thani family that rules Qatar originally came from the desert in the 18th century from an area that is now in Saudi Arabia, and there are still elements of tribal rivalry with the Saud family. More recently Qatar has challenged Saudi hegemony in the region, particularly through the coverage of controversial issues by state-controlled network Al-Jazeera, which has been accused of promoting terrorist groups. Saudi Arabia has broken diplomatic relations with Qatar on more than one occasion and in 2017 did so again, closing its airspace to Qatar airlines, seeking a pan-Arab boycott on docking by Qatari ships and closing its land border with Qatar. Qatar turned to Iran for support (notwithstanding the presence of the USAF at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar). When you are talking about the Middle East, things are complicated and alliances and loyalties shift rapidly.

As part of their “punishment” of Qatar, the Saudis blocked Qatari websites, including Al-Jazeera and banned Al-Jazeera channels from hotel distribution in the Kingdom. The Saudis wanted Al-Jazeera shut down, but that hasn’t happened. In fact, Al-Jazeera stuck the knife in by relentlessly covering the shocking murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. The land border remains closed, and there are rumours that the Saudis intend to make the blockage permanent by digging a canal across the Qatari peninsula to sever the state from the Arabian mainland. This probably won’t happen but this gives you an idea of the degree of tension, and to what measures the Saudis are prepared to resort. The air and sea blockade (which has not been successful) continues. In other words, the two states are engaged in ongoing forms of hybrid warfare.

Into this mix we now throw sports and broadcasting. The leading sports channel in the region is the Qatari-based network BeIN Sports. BeIN is a global network operating in the Middle East and North Africa, France, Spain, United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Turkey, Hong Kong, and several countries in south-east Asia. It is not irrelevant to know that it was formerly known as Al-Jazeera Sports. According to BeIN’s website, it has “disassociated” from Al-Jazeera, but while legally separate, many still consider it to be part of the Al-Jazeera Media Group. Its exact relationship to Al-Jazeera today is a bit unclear. BeIN has been active in acquiring rights to many sports, in particular the most popular sport in the Middle East, soccer (aka football). It has a terrific line up, including UEFA championships, English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga and other top-calibre soccer. It is a must-have for football (soccer) fans, and was widely available in Saudi Arabia until the 2017 Saudi-Qatari rupture.

Now ask yourself. Given the “no-holds barred” state of Saudi-Qatar relations, plus the fact that Saudi Arabia has more than ten times Qatar’s population, is the Saudi leadership going to let a Qatari sports channel get rich by providing must-have sports coverage to the millions of Saudis who follow soccer? No way. The Saudis are accustomed to getting their own way. But the problem is that BeIN sports has tied up all the broadcast rights so even if there was a decent Saudi sports channel, which there isn’t, the rights for the Middle East have been sold to the Qataris. So the only solution is to (a) block BeIN sports to the extent possible so that it can’t reach Saudi consumers and (b) pirate the signal and distribute it to Saudi (and other) audiences. This will damage BeIN’s business, but more important it will strike back at the Qatari regime. But like much in hybrid warfare, it has to be plausibly deniable, especially since the US is the top military backer of the Saudi regime and the US just happens to have this annoying habit of respecting intellectual property rights and not being too keen on governments that engage in state-supported content theft. In fact the most recent US Trade Representative’s Special 301 report on Intellectual Property demoted Saudi Arabia to the Priority Watch List (almost the worst category of IP offender) and had this to say about the pirate enterprise that has been created, interestingly called (instead of BeIN), BeoutQ.

BeoutQ, an illicit service for pirated content whose signal is reportedly (emphasis added) carried by Saudi Arabia-based satellite provider Arabsat, continues to be widely available in Saudi Arabia and throughout the Middle East and Europe…While Saudi officials have confirmed the illegal nature of BeoutQ’s activities and claim to be addressing this issue by seizing BeoutQ set-top boxes, such devices nevertheless continue to be widely available and are generally unregulated in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia also has not taken sufficient steps to address the purported (emphasis added) role of Arabsat in facilitating BeoutQ’s piracy activities.”

Oh, and Arabsat, owned by the Arab League (with the Saudi government as the dominant shareholder), is headquartered in Riyadh.

If BeIN Sports and Qatar is not happy about the current state of affairs involving widespread content piracy by BeoutQ, the same can be said for the sports leagues who are concerned that one of their best customers has lost a large chunk of its market to a rogue operation. In June of this year, BeIN Sports laid off 300 staff in Qatar, a fifth of its Qatar-based workforce, citing a drop in profits as a result of Saudi piracy. Last month, FIFA in conjunction with a number of professional football leagues, released an investigative report into the operation of BeoutQ. The press release issued by FIFA and its partners stated that;

“The report confirms without question that beoutQ’s pirate broadcasts have been transmitted using satellite infrastructure owned and operated by Arabsat.”

The full 158 page report “BeoutQ Investigation”, went into chapter and verse to show exactly how, where and when Arabsat carried BeoutQ’s ten channels. It also detailed how the BeoutQ set top boxes (manufactured in China) were activated by a geo-located signal from Arabsat. The signal is largely restricted through technical means to the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia. The BeIN signal is pirated with the BeoutQ logo superimposed over the feed. The report also investigated third party apps that are enabled by BeoutQ. What it did not do is determine exactly who is behind BeoutQ.

It is clear that BeoutQ is protected by powerful forces within Saudi Arabia. The New York Times reported that FIFA and other soccer leagues have been unable to find legal counsel in Saudi Arabia to represent them. Over the past 15 months they contacted at least nine law firms in Saudi Arabia only to have each of them refuse outright or recuse themselves after initially agreeing to serve as counsel. Sounds like they got a quiet phone call from “on high” advising them not to take the case. The Times also speculated that Saud al-Qahtani, a senior aide to Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince and power behind the throne, might be behind BeoutQ. Remember hybrid warfare and deniability?

While FIFA’s efforts to out the perpetrators are laudable, one wonders how much success they will have. Clearly the strategy is to maintain pressure and try to strip away the deniability veil, causing as much embarrassment as possible to the Saudi regime. But does the regime really care? If this is one more way for the Saudis to stick their finger in the eye of the Qatari regime, they will continue to do it as long as possible in an attempt to bring the annoying little cousin to heel. If the disgraceful Khashoggi affair is any guide, the response will be “deny, deny, deny” until caught red-handed and then blame everything on rogue minions. This is not to suggest that Qatar is totally blameless in the political dispute. Apart from Al-Jazeera’s well documented coverage of (one might even say support for), politically toxic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, there have been complaints that inappropriate political commentary has found its way into BeIN’s Arabic language soccer coverage.

Now, this blog is not about who is right and who is wrong in the Middle East. That’s a mug’s game because in most cases, there is no clear right and wrong, or black and white. The region is covered by a cloud of grey, including grey zone warfare that includes using drones, media campaigns based on propaganda and disinformation–and pirating soccer broadcasts. One hopes that one day Saudi Arabia and Qatar will patch up their differences and that BeoutQ will disappear. The longer term problem is that by then audiences will have become conditioned to expecting something for virtually nothing (the BeoutQ box costs about $100 per year, giving access to a wide range of top notch sports and other content), and piracy will continue in one form or another. As I wrote in a blog posting I did earlier this year (“Sports and Copyright—Why Sports Fans are Cheating Themselves When They Stream Pirated Content”), piracy of sports broadcasts is becoming a growing problem globally. There are technical and educational means to combat it, but when piracy becomes an instrument of warfare, even if it is hybrid warfare, there is a limit to what broadcasting networks and sports leagues can do when they get caught in the crossfire.

© Hugh Stephens, 2019. All Rights Reserved.

 

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