Police in four countries raided data centers and residences on Wednesday that culminated with the shutdown of Kino.to, a popular site for watching streaming movies and TV shows aimed at German-language speakers.
Thirteen people were arrested and another is sought after raids were conducted in Germany, Spain, France and the Netherlands, said Matthias Leonardy, managing director of the German Federation Against Copyright Theft (GVU).
In Germany alone, more than 250 police officers and tax officials and 17 other specialists searched more than 20 homes, businesses and data centers, the GVU said.
Kino.to, established in 2008, comprised a complex system of content hosting sites that were connected with the main Kino.to home page, Leonardy said. Users could go to Kino.to, where they could then elect to watch some of the latest movies -- including "The Hangover Part II" which was available almost immediately after release -- and watch the films through a Flash Player on the hosting sites.
Kino.to was a "very handsome, easy-to-use service," Leonardy said, with a very organized database where users could conduct searches for movies, for example, by actor or actress.
The site quickly came on GVU's radar after launching, but its investigations were stymied by difficulties in locating its operators, who used fake names to register for hosting and built a distributed network in several countries, he said. The Kino.to domain was actually hosted not in Germany but in Russia, a country considered by many to be difficult to work with on cybercrime and copyright infringement cases.
"They have been smart enough to hide their operations behind fake names and false data," Leonardy said.
GVU alleges Kino.to plus the other hosting sites -- believed to be run by the same people -- generated upwards of €2 million (US$2.92 million) annually in both advertising revenue and premium services offered on the hosting sites, Leonardy said. At one time, Kino.to ranked 45th on Alexa's ratings of the most visited websites in Germany with as many as 4 million visitors a day.
Kino.to is now offline. However, Google's cache showed that the site recently displayed a notice in German saying it had been closed due to accusations of copyright infringement and that several of its operators had been arrested.
GVU's pursuit of Kino.to took a turn after the organization received some good tips on who was operating the site, Leonardy said. GVU then filed a report with the prosecutor's office in Dresden, Germany.
The prosecutor's office assigned the case to a specialized force, called the Integrated Investigations Unit, which was created a couple of years ago to tackle white collar crime and other crime that demands more law enforcement resources. It's the first time the unit has tackled a copyright infringement case, Leonardy said. With "enormous and breathtaking speed," the team took on Kino.to, ending in the raids, he said.
Those arrested in Germany are still being interrogated. The Dresden prosecutor is considering charging the group as a crime syndicate with the intention of systematic infringement of copyright, which would be a new kind of approach than in the past, said Leonardy, who is also a lawyer.
"Germany traditionally has not been aggressive on imprisoning people for copyright infringement," Leonardy said. "This time it might be different."
The group may also face charges of tax infringement and money laundering depending on how the advertising revenues were handled, he said.
Dresden prosecutors could not be immediately reached for comment.
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