Facebook’s new video-streaming feature, Watch Party, is a big hit, bringing together users from across the globe. There’s just one problem: Some are using it in ways that Facebook didn’t intend, and that are almost certainly illegal.
Launched to all users in November, Watch Party lets users “host” video-watching events with friends and others on the site, letting them watch simultaneously and comment or react in real time to what’s on the screen.
But it has also proved hugely popular with pirates, Business Insider found, with users flocking to the feature to broadcast copyrighted movies and TV shows to strangers across Facebook.
We found that illicit watch parties were a frequent occurrence on the social network, broadcasting a range of media, from relatively recent hits like “Her” to cinematic classics like “Mean Girls” and vintage TV shows like the original “Twilight Zone.”
Groups have sprung up to host these watch parties, with names like “Super Film Club Watch Party” and “Watch Party Cinema,” that often have hundreds or even thousands of users and make no attempt to hide their purpose.
“Watch Party Central Movie Lovers Unite” openly billed itself as “a place for movie lovers to enjoy movies together for free and discuss the films,” while another group said: “It is simple the way the Game works. Every Friday a member picks a movie and we all watch it. We will then discuss the film and rate the film under the Rotten Carl Score post for the film.”
The watch parties also sprang up in unrelated groups as a way to bring members together. “It’s 2005 and this is cool as hell” is one example of a group that hosted these events nearly constantly, to which Facebook’s automatic notifications then alerted its nearly 119,000 members.
After Business Insider reached out to Facebook for comment, the company took down the groups listed above.
In a statement to Business Insider explaining the group takedowns, a Facebook representative, Carolyn Thomas, said: “We devote significant resources to address and prevent piracy for all videos on Facebook, including in Watch Parties. We have several measures in place to address infringing content, including our notice-and-takedown program, repeat infringer policy, Rights Manager, and use of Audible Magic.”
She added: “We take prompt action against IP infringement when we become aware of it, and disable the accounts of repeat infringers when appropriate. In this instance, the Groups have violated our Community Standards on Intellectual Property and have been removed.”
Still, not all Watch Party groups are necessarily engaged in copyright infringement: Facebook has the rights to broadcast cult-hit TV shows “Buffy,” “Angel” and “Firefly,” meaning that it’s entirely on the level to organize a communal Watch Party around them — and at least one group we saw is dedicated to doing exactly that for “Firefly.”
However, Facebook has a long history of copyright infringement on the platform. In 2018, Business Insider reported that its groups were widely used for sharing pirated rips of popular movies, with some growing to hundreds of thousands of members on the back of such material.
And content creators have for years complained about “freebooting,” when nefarious users rip copies of their video from other platforms like YouTube and then upload it on Facebook without their permission.
Facebook’s stated mission is “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together,” but Watch Party’s adoption by pirates illustrates that the company’s features for building “community” aren’t restricted to virtuous uses. And more than that, it represents a notable shift in the evolution of piracy.
Historically, this kind of copyright infringement has, for most people, been a fundamentally solitary activity — one person’s decision to download a specific video or stream a movie. Any piracy-focused forums or chat groups were largely adjacent to the illegal activity, rather than a core component of it.
But Watch Party introduces a social aspect to piracy, without requiring any technical know-how from users. It turns piracy into something like a communal TV-viewing experience, with users chatting about the copyrighted content as it plays, connecting with one another in the comments, or even establishing threads to discuss what they should watch together next.
Facebook has previously tried to wash its hands of content infringement. When Business Insider reached out to the company in 2018 about piracy-focused groups, it declined to take them down, saying that unless rights-holders complained, it couldn’t be sure that the videos were being shared illegally — even when they were clearly recorded in cinemas by people using handheld cameras.
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