As streaming fragments, piracy is coming back


As more people around the world gained access to fast internet connections over the last ten years, Netflix has become the ubiquitous way to access streaming movies and TV. In the same way that Spotify (and its competition) have sent music piracy into a downward popularity spiral, piracy of movies and TV shows has also begun to fall in recent years—thanks to Netflix.

Now, as streaming is beginning to resemble the cable bundles of old, it's making a big come back. A big story today over on The Verge detailed how a piece of software called Plex, which makes it easy to build your own personal streaming service, is partially responsible for a renaissance as consumers are pushed to pay for multiple subscriptions to get access to content:

Plex, a company that sells media server software, has found itself in the strange position of being the answer to that problem. It has two components: the piece of software that organizes media on your computer’s hard drive and the client-side program that lets you and your friends and family stream that content from wherever you are on just about any device. It’s clean. It’s beautiful. It is extraordinarily simple to use. It looks a little like Netflix. Except, all of the content is custom, tailored by the person running the server. In the company’s words, both pieces of its software are “the key to personal media bliss.”

Plex isn't to blame here at all—it's a fabulous piece of software that has existed long before piracy saw a resurgence. But, what's fascinating is that its simplicity, and the ability to spin up a server of your own to share with friends, is driving a new era of piracy. It's Netflix in its friendly interface, except everything is available in one spot.

I'll admit that I have run a Plex server for my own purposes for a number of years now and had automated the obtaining of content and automatic indexing so I didn't even need to do anything at all. But, as streaming became easier and the best content was made by Netflix, it fell into disrepair and I largely didn't use it.

It's early days yet, and perhaps piracy won't come back in a big way, but it's hard to overstate how simple it seems compared with signing up to a bunch of fragmented, disconnected services. The TV box, Roku, offers a unified search across almost every service—which is close to what most people probably want—but I don't think most of us want to pay for more than 1-2 TV services at once.

If we're having this conversation now, before Disney+, Apple TV+ and every other service has launched, it's going to be fascinating to see how it plays out. In music, we deal with exclusives and other silly deals, but it feels workable. In TV, it's an all-out nostalgia war for the best content to lure subscribers... and it's probably not going to end well.

The tech antitrust investigation is here

The U.S. Department of Justice has finally made the call: it will investigate "big tech" broadly to determine whether or not there are widespread cases of using a monopoly to their advantage. 

Essentially, it'll investigate the thing we already knew: once you're entrenched in the industry, and have a certain amount of capital, are you abusing your market position to help launch other products or muscle out new entrants? Almost certainly yes, and it's been happening for years.

According to the WSJ, the work will investigate a number of different areas:

The review is geared toward examining the practices of online platforms that dominate internet search, social media and retail services, the department said, confirming the review shortly after The Wall Street Journal reported it.

It's a huge story that this is happening—but that feels like a lot of things being thrown into the same bucket, which means some areas are going to get more attention than others. Apparently, there is "no defined end-goal yet" despite the announcement, but it may trigger sub-investigations once the groundwork to figure out what to focus on has begun.

Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon are of particular interest to the investigation, with an already underway piece of work figuring out if Google engaged in illegal monopolization tactics, but also throwing Apple into the same bucket. 

A good example of what may be relevant to Apple is that of the App Store—some studies have found that Apple heavily weights its search results in favor of its own products when searching, despite vehement claims it does nothing of the sort. It's hard to audit this, but it's also hard to imagine Apple not weighting it in favor of its own podcast app when searching "podcasts."

As far as I can tell, the entire point of this is to determine what a monopoly position means in technology, and when it's being abused. Antitrust law has long been weak enough that we can't really tell if Apple blocking changing the default email app away from its own would fall into the category of abusing a monopoly position, let alone Facebook acquiring Instagram and WhatsApp.

What we should get out of this, even if these companies aren't immediately targeted, is where that line actually sits. "Big isn't necessarily bad," Attorney General William Barr has previously said, and I agree—we just don't know how to measure if a successful company is trying to enter a new market to actually benefit consumers or only further entrench its own advantage.

Stay tuned, because if there was a bubble to pop, this might be it.

Tab Dump

The FTC will allege Facebook deceived users about phone numbers and facial recognition
It'll stop short of forcing the company to admit guilt, because of course it will. What's interesting to mull is that Facebook was caught red-handed using phone numbers acquired for 2FA in many other ways, despite saying it wouldn't do it—which makes me wonder if it actually does any of the things it says it does publicly, or just hopes it won't ever be caught.

Good read: The man who built the retweet says "we handed a loaded weapon to 4-year-olds"