The initiative began at the start of the year and started to take actions in March. So far, the CUII has blocked two sites illegally streaming music and TV shows, each with millions of unique visitors a month, and it expects to block dozens more by the end of the year.
But web-freedom activists have attacked the CUII, saying the absence of court proceedings undermines citizens’ rights, restricts internet freedom and is potentially setting a negative precedent.
The global rise of streaming services like Amazon, Apple Music, Spotify and Deezer — which collectively accounted for 55% of music sales in Germany last year — has reduced piracy to a much-less significant part of the market than it used to be. Even during lockdown, when music-related visits to torrenting platforms have been increasing in many markets, Germany has seen a sharp fall in visits, reckons the London-based Muso consultancy. Germans consumed 139 billion audio streams in 2020, up one third from 2019, according to data from GfK Entertainment and the Germany Music Industry Association (BVMI).
But amid the shift to legal operators — who pay out slim per-stream royalties to labels, artists and other rights holders — illegal music streamers in the tradition of Napster still exist and are carrying out peer-to-peer piracy.
“It remains important to acknowledge that piracy is still a big problem,” says Florian Drücke, head of the BVMI. “We still have hundreds of structurally copyright infringing websites which are not easy to sue in Germany.” The BVMI’s concern led them to help establish the CUII with organizations including the Motion Picture Association, the German soccer league and Sky Deutschland.
The first website the platform blocked, called serienstreams, is a German-speaking site that streams TV shows from Netflix, Disney+, Sky and others with 8 million unique visits a month. The second blocked website, called canna.to, offers pirated music.
In Germany, calling up one of the blocked websites via a connection from Telekom, Vodafone, O2, 1&1 or other internet service provider, redirects users to a CUII information page with the message: "This website is not available for copyright reasons."
Criminal proceedings against illegal operators could take years, and even years-long international investigations have been unable to remove some of them from the Internet.
And music consumers continue to seek them out.
“You could say it’s only stupid people left pirating songs, but this underestimates the problem, because some users are sticking to what they learned a decade ago,” says Drücke. “They also know these services are not hunted down. So they are not going to Spotify Free or a premium service.”
The music industry’s strategy has been to attack the services themselves rather than the uploaders, which Drücke describes as a “whack-a-mole” game. And while the music industry’s piracy issues have been significantly reduced, Drücke says the new anti-piracy platform is also about showing solidarity with other types of intellectual property, such as books, films and soccer screening rights.
Circumventing The Need For Court Action
The CUII circumvents the need for court action, but each complaint by a copyright owner is reviewed by a committee that includes retired judges with knowledge of German copyright law. Germany’s telecommunications regulator, BNetzA, reviews each complaint to confirm that any one web-block does not breach the European Union’s net neutrality rules.
Jan Bernd Nordemann, a copyright lawyer who helped establish the CUII, says the pace of blocks is picking up. He expects the new service to block close to 100 sites by the end of the year. The new platform, he says, is a more efficient way to handle copyright infringements than court challenges.
“One hundred proceedings at court would be costly and very time consuming,” Nordemann tells Billboard. “So that's why we thought it's better to establish a self-regulated body with state control as a second step.”
BNetzA president Jochen Homann says the clearance system is “a fast and efficient way to block websites that are systematically infringing copyright." The new project “will help to avoid the long, expensive legal proceedings that rights holders have had to rely on up to now,” he says in a statement.
In Germany, the legislative environment is heavily weighted against censorship and attacks on internet freedom. Having lived under the Nazi Third Reich and communist East Germany, Germany considers privacy a hard-won freedom. Google has tried to launch its Street View app twice in Germany and failed both times because of public opposition.
So it’s no surprise there is push-back against the new platform’s self-regulation.
The Freedom Society, a German NGO, is gearing up to take action against the CUII, says Julia Reda, a former European Union parliamentarian who currently heads up the “control c” project dealing with copyright law and civil rights at the NGO. The Freedom Society is is examining the rules, talking to the authorities and lobbying Germany’s political parties to respond, she says.
“The CUII undermines the fundamental right to freedom of information and net neutrality,” Reda tells Billboard. “The project also paves the way for further extrajudicial restrictions on freedom of communication.”
The internet streaming platforms, she says, buckled to industry pressure, foregoing their own basic rights and also those of their users who have not consented to the procedure. “The companies in CUII are basically competing with the websites,” she says. “It can’t be for a competitor to decide -- that’s a cartel.”