Latin America’s Streaming Wars

The “black box” transmits movies, TV and streaming services like Netflix at a fraction of the usual cost. It’s highly popular — and completely illegal.

SÃO PAULO — This city’s teeming street markets are a counterfeiter’s paradise. Men weave through crowds pushing handcarts stacked high with garbage bags stuffed with knock-off Louis Vuitton handbags to be sold at $30 apiece. Imitation Nike sneakers sell for $8. Fake Oakley sunglasses go for $5 a pop. And packets of 50,000 emails (sorted by profession and region) can be had for just $3. But during the Christmas 2018 rush, the hottest item for sale was a little black box no bigger than a couple of packs of cigarettes yet packed with enough computer chips, circuits and software to receive nearly every cable or streaming TV series on Earth.

Thanks to plummeting prices for streaming video over the internet, major media and entertainment companies have found a new way to bring their movies, series and news services to consumers. Legal subscriptions in Latin America for services like HBO on Demand, Netflix or Spotify are often around $10 a month, and business is booming in this C2C business model: content to consumer.

The same technology that makes it so convenient to watch content — even in an elevator or on the subway — allows a parallel industry of technologically savvy pirates to hack, copy, redirect and resell these services with their own highly discounted subscription packages, or a single one-off payment.

Across Latin America, Instagram and Facebook are awash in advertisements that offer pirated access to Netflix and Spotify, often bundled for a total of less than $3 a month. Payment is made via PayPal and security codes to access the content are updated monthly via WhatsApp. By stealing the digital signal, building out their own server farms, and signing up subscribers, pirates across the continent are seeking ways to monetize the retransmission of stolen signals from PAW Patrol to porn. It’s a business model I dub P2C — Pirate to Consumer.

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