Football fans who don’t want to pay extra to watch the FIFA World Cup on their cable TV have been watching free live streams of the matches on the internet, prompting complaints from the Nepal broadcasting rights holder.
Media Hub, which was awarded the exclusive rights to broadcast the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, has been scrambling to get local internet service providers to block live streams, and lobby groups have responded that it’s illegal to stream online content without sanctions to block.
The media service provider is embroiled in a row with activists who are proclaiming their right to watch free online content.
Tara Nath Dahal, Executive Chair of Freedom Forum Nepal, an NGO working to protect and promote human rights, tweeted on Friday questioning the actions of internet service providers to restrict FIFA World Cup content online as if it were theirs would be prerogative.
“When content on the Internet is filtered in this way, it clearly shows what the situation of Internet freedom is like in Nepal.”
The Telecommunications Authority of Nepal has said it cannot block live streaming without a green light from the government.
“We have acquired both digital and broadcast rights and we have the right to protect their abuse because we paid for it,” said Som Prasad Dhital, Executive Director of Media Hub. “Our right should also be secured by the government.”
Media Hub obtained broadcasting rights from FIFA through Viacom18 Media, an Indian media and entertainment company, paying Rs400 million.
“Since we have obtained full rights, live streaming of the games is illegal,” said Dhital, who is also president of the Advertising Association of Nepal.
Some fans watched the World Cup on the internet using a virtual private network (VPN) readily available on some platforms.
According to reports, live FIFA World Cup matches are only available on pay TV channels or streaming services in most territories. In these regions, the average cost to stream each World Cup game is $60.
Nepalese can watch the matches on TV by paying an additional Rs565 including tax per set-top box for the duration of the tournament.
There are reportedly legitimate broadcasters in about eight countries showing the games on free-to-air online streaming websites. These sites geoblock the games if your IP address is from another country.
Some fans have been live streaming World Cup matches for free and from anywhere using a VPN that can hide users’ physical location and IP address.
For example, in Nepal, many live streaming sites such as 9goal, score808 and crichd have emerged, allowing users to watch the championships without paying.
“Broadcasting the matches through any website is against Media Hub’s agreement with FIFA and Viacom 18,” Dhital said.
However, proponents condemn attempts to filter content online as illegal.
“Unless the government bans a particular website, private companies don’t have the right to filter or limit the content available on the internet,” said Santosh Sigdel, founding chair of Digital Rights Nepal, an advocacy group working to empower civil society space and digital rights.
“There is a regulator that decides what content should be available on the internet,” he added.
Purushottam Khanal, head of the Telecoms Authority of Nepal, said the broadcasting rights holder, Media Hub, had written to the regulator asking them not to show games from other websites through internet service providers.
“Media Hub raised a question and we informed ISPs about it,” Khanal said. “We have not instructed any internet service provider to block such sites,” he said. “Neither do we have the right to filter online content.”
According to Sigdel, some internet service providers offering IPTV (Internet Protocol Television) services have shut down many websites that streamed the football matches for free. “That’s control over the content.”
ISPs say they have blocked many websites not registered or listed in Nepal.
“Facebook and Twitter are both registered in Nepal,” Sigdel said.
“The Internet is an open access platform and you don’t have to buy a license to put content on it. There is also no need to register or be listed; but if the content breaks the law, the government has to regulate it.”
The onslaught of TV viewers paying extra for the FIFA World Cup overwhelmed the servers for hours on November 20, and many customers vented their anger at digital payment systems like Esewa and Khalti for delaying their transactions.
According to Media Hub, by Sunday around 300,000 customers had subscribed to the World Cup, which is broadcast on the Himalaya Premium TV channel.