The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Movie piracy linked to international terrorism?

March 4, 2009 |  5:35 pm

Pirateflag_2Movie piracy is one of those things that we all agree is bad -- but just how bad? I have friends who see it as little more than a victimless crime while the Motion Picture Assn. of America views it as something akin to the end of Western civilization. But it's never been linked to terrorism -- until now.

A new Rand Corp. report, titled "Film Piracy, Organized Crime and Terrorism," claims that DVD piracy has become a hotbed for organized crime, which uses the proceeds to finance the drug trade, money laundering scams, extortion and human smuggling. The study goes on to say: "Three of the documented cases provide clear evidence that terrorist groups have used the proceeds of film piracy to finance their activities." Among the terrorist groups it cites are the IRA, India's D-Company and a DVD pirate named Assad Ahmad Barakat, who the report says once received a thank-you note for his fundraising efforts from Hezbollah -- a pretty good sign in their eyes that he must be a nefarious character. He was also labeled a "global terrorist" in 2004 by the Bush administration.

I have to admit this all sounded pretty scary, until I noticed a critique of the Rand study on TorrentFreak that claims that the study was funded by the MPAA, which, in addition to not exactly being an objective source, has a long track record of crying wolf when it comes to piracy claims. (In 2005, for example, an MPAA study that made headlines with its claim that 44% of Hollywood's piracy losses came from college students illegally downloading movies turned out to be full of wildly inflated numbers, as this 2008 story revealed.) 

The post, written by Ben Jones, points out that the study acknowledges using the terms "piracy" and "counterfeiting" interchangeably, although they often mean totally different things: "Piracy in this context tends to refer mostly to digitally representable items, while counterfeit goods can run the gamut from aircraft parts to cigarettes." It also questions the actual evidence linking some of the crimes to piracy. And I have to admit that some of the evidence seems, well, shaky, especially in Rand's strangely melodramatic account of 21 illegal Chinese immigrants who "drowned in the rising tide of Morecambe Bay while harvesting shellfish at night in treacherous waters." Exactly how is this linked to DVD piracy? Well, according to Rand, the victims had been "forced into servitude by a slavemaster whose accomplice was found to have 4,000 counterfeit DVDs, copiers and other equipment used for film piracy."

So it wasn't even the "slavemaster" who had anything to do with piracy -- it was simply his accomplice, whose links to the enslaved illegal immigrants are, well, somewhat nebulous, since there's no proof offered that this "accomplice" had anything to do with the shellfish harvesting. TorrentFreak's critique speculates that the true purpose of this new report is to help advance the MPAA's anti-piracy agenda by encouraging new, tougher anti-piracy laws. The study's recommendations include turning over key piracy cases to organized crime divisions of prosecutor offices and granting investigators greater authority to conduct surveillance and obtain search warrants.

Call me a skeptic. If there's a clear-cut connection between terrorism and organized crime and DVD pirates, I'd like to see stronger evidence than what this report has to offer.