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Android TV boxes

Android TV boxes, are computers that stream content from the internet onto your TV. The difference between them and your smart-phone is that it has a HDMI connector to your TV, and it usually comes pre-loaded with software to illegally stream content.

While the boxes themselves, are general purpose computers running Android (the most popular OS today), the real focus of any regulation should be on the software on the device and the internet-based streaming services that support them.

Which seems to be the case…

Today, TheStar reports that the MCMC will begin blocking these unauthorized streaming services, rendering the boxes that connect to them useless.

But, if the MCMC uses it’s usual method of DNS filtering to implement the block, it’ll be trivial for most folks to circumvent the issue, the boxes run Android after all. The government will very quickly find itself in a cat and mouse situation in trying to block them.

In Singapore, they’ve taken to calling these boxes ‘illicit streaming devices’ or ISDs, which is a much better term than ‘Android Boxes’. The Singapore high court had also ordered local ISPs to block access to TV box ‘applications’. I’m curious to see the actual wording of the judgement, but I’m unable to find it anywhere, only reporting on the judgement itself.

But let’s dive into what an Android box is anyway.

First off, the Android box is just that, a computer running an Operating System called Android connected to the internet.

On that computer, runs various applications, some of which connect to internet based streaming services to stream content. That content is almost exclusively illegal.

The thing that makes it illegal is the streaming content, not that it’s a TV box or that it runs Android. Hence, most geeks abhor the idea of banning an ‘Android Box’.

But…. we cannot sit idly by, and allow folks to sell technology whose sole purpose is illegal in nature. You can’t hide behind the “technology is neither good or bad” mantra here.

For example, in 2018, the FBI arrested the owner of Phantom Secure, a company that sold modified blackberry phones. Phantom Secure built their products for a target audience of mostly criminal actors, they even operated email servers in countries like Panama and Hong Kong, whom they considered to be less helpful to law enforcement in the West.

Modifying blackberry phones shouldn’t be illegal — but if the sole purpose of that modification is to make it more appealing to criminals, then law enforcement has to act doesn’t it?

I used the wrong word, it’s not ‘appealing’ to criminals, it’s aiding and abetting their activities, that’s a crime in many countries.

Similarly these Android boxes, whose sole purpose it is to allow consumers to access illegal content should also be regulated shouldn’t they? If the box just runs Android, and all the consumer is doing is streaming youtube and netflix to their TV, then it’s prefectly fine.

But if the box comes pre-loaded with apps that connect to illegal streaming sites, then clearly it’s built for something more nefarious. And trust me, 90% of consumers will no idea how to load that illegal app onto a general Android box if it didn’t come pre-loaded.

I guess, my conclusion is that regulation should focus on the sale of these ‘illicit streaming devices’ with hard penalties on the sellers. But if we’ve learnt anything from our combat with pirated DVD sellers, that’s a hard ask for local law enforcement.

The thing that killed pirated DVDs in Malaysia wasn’t hard-enforcement, it was Netflix and torrents. And as our internet speeds increase ever further the days of pirated DVDs in our local pasar malams is well and truly over.

The true value of the Android box is convenience, the ability to watch the latest movies on a box connected to your TV, unless the media industry offer something of equal convenience at a more appealing price point, they’re going to continue losing this battle. Going musket to musket with red-coats is not an effective strategy.

Plus, a little bit of piracy never hurt anyone.

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