When watching TV becomes criminal

Who knew that binge-watching Game of Thrones could become a crime?

Canadian Netflix users have far fewer selections than Americans
Canadian Netflix users have far fewer selections than Americans

Piracy: illegal, or the cheapest way to watch movies and television shows? 

Being jobless university students, most people I know don’t bother with paying for the luxury of cable. But how can they keep up with the latest episodes of the common favourite, Game of Thrones.

For many of those who can’t afford an expensive HBO subscription, they may have to settle for the low-quality, slow to load videos from questionable websites.

But, as it turns out, students aren’t the only ones who pirate most of the TV they watch. 

According to torrentfreak.com, the number of Canadians who pirate in-demand shows like Game of Thrones has historically been more than twice than in the United States. The reason Canada has such high piracy rates has to do with the limited amount of channels available in comparison to the US.

The recent phenomenon of ‘cord-cutting,’ — getting rid of your cable connection and opting for exclusive use of a laptop and a HDMI cord — has cut down on monthly bills for people around the world who have reliable internet connections and opt to watch TV and movies via their laptops, tablets and smart phones. 

But cutting down on the bills brought on the arrival of even scarier letters for thousands of Canadians. 

HBO Canada, which is only accessible to Canadians with an expensive cable connection, sent out emails to Canadians suspected of pirating Game of Thrones following the debut of the sixth season premiere. 

Several people I know received the warning via email from their Internet providers, stating that HBO has “information leading us to believe that this IP address was used to download or share Game of Thrones without authorization”. 

If you remember those old commercials that would try to scare you out of pirating music or movies, the ones that had some intense music and used the tagline “You wouldn’t steal a car...”, getting a letter from someone who is tracking your Internet history is the stuff of nightmares. 

But the letters mostly wag a finger at the reader, explaining that downloading unauthorized content is illegal, and that “HBO requests that you immediately take the proper steps to prevent further downloading or sharing of HBO content”. They don’t threaten any legal action or demand payment, but alert those who receive it that their online activity is being tracked.

HBO is just one of two major entertainment goliaths who are unhappy with Canadians using illegal means to watch their content.

This January, Netflix released a statement that they would be shutting down programs that were allowing people to bypass their website’s border control. 

It  wasn’t a hollow promise. Many Canadians who had previously been able to access American Netflix were greeted upon logging in with a message that prompted them to disable their geo-blockers in order to use the site. 

Canadians who illegally access American Netflix do so by signing up for and using Netflix while they use a VPN, or geo-blocker. These programs block the signal that gives the geographic location of the Internet user, which allows Canadians who would have previously been forced to use Canadian Netflix access to the American selection.

Why go through so much trouble? American Netflix has an estimated 5,598 selections in comparison to Canada’s 3,349 selections. The discrepancy between the two is a source of frustration for Netflix users who feel they are being discriminated against geographically. 

Unfortunately, America is where Netflix owns the majority of it’s streaming rights over major film studios like Warner Bros., Universal Pictures, Sony Pictures Entertainment, 20th Century Fox, and Walt Disney Studios, as well as in-demand TV shows like Parks and Recreation, CSI, New Girl, American Horror Story, and 30 Rock

With two major studios declaring cyber war on Canadian torrenters, piracy seems like it would hold less appeal these days. The opposite is true for many Canadians, students included, who regularly download. and claim to be undeterred by warnings. 

When the media we consume is the same, but Canadians feel the expense for it instead of Americans, piracy can feel less criminal and more justified. Most people probably wouldn’t steal a car, but an over-priced hour of a TV show? Apparently so. 

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