GoStream and GoMovies (along with MeMovies) are a few of the remnants of the widely popular 123Movies.to, a website which has managed to gain the title of the ‘most popular illegal site in the world’ due to the huge number of monthly visits (about 98 million) and the entire network of streaming websites was operated from Vietnam (it was hosted in Ukraine), so a collaboration between the local authorities and the US have was necessary to bring it down (and to scare off anyone else that wanted to go on the same venture). The entire premise behind these websites is to provide free content to its users, on the surface at least, since the content (movies and series) is copyrighted and almost always pirated from torrent websites. The illusion of ‘free movies’ breaks easily when you see the earnings model: ads, pop-up windows, redirects which a lot of times end up taking you to some infected website that tries to push malware or viruses to your computer. But that’s not all because you can also get ads embedded in the movie itself hovering or even interrupting the video (ads for casinos or other betting websites).
Some variants of 123Movies, GoStream and GoMovies still exist even today (clone websites) and they always will, due to the prospect of ever-growing earnings and because of the brand name, even if the original creators may not be behind them (as I said before, 123Movies is well known on the web). But how do websites such as 123Movies, GoMovies and GoStream operate? By using layers: the user searches for a certain movie or series on the website and the displayed results are usually from a second website (hosted on a specific server – there will more likely be multiple ‘sources’ or servers available); this way, the server will stream the movie to the user’s tablet or computer, bypassing the first website. The reason for these layers is to try and avoid any possible legal repercussions, by putting the source of the streaming in countries where the law is less strict than in the US or the west part of the EU.
Why do people watch 123Movies? (or use any other illegal streaming platform, such as GoStream or GoMovies)
If you ask the media industry representatives, the answer is always going to be greed and the stubbornness to support those that create the great content, but things are a lot more complicated than that. Let’s say we divide the users in two groups, those that just don’t have the means to pay for a monthly subscription, so they rely on third-party services to watch their favorite shows (it usually happens when children or teenagers hear from their more wealthy friends about that cool movie that was just released, so they want to watch it as well) and then there’s the group of people that can afford to pay for the monthly subscription. The former group is usually more widespread in developing countries and the media industry usually doesn’t care that much about them (for example, the chance that a country in Eastern Europe would prosecute someone for viewing a movie on an illegal streaming website is slim to none), so we’re going to focus on latter group.
When Netflix was the dominant streaming service and people could find pretty much all the movies or series that they wanted, the piracy hit a record low (Spotify has been another key player to lowering piracy), but something happened over the last four years that has pushed the piracy and illegal streaming back up. Netflix was too successful, so other media conglomerates saw the potential to push their own streaming platforms, creating separate series and completely fragmenting the market. There is now Hulu, Apple TV+, HBO Now, Amazon Prime, CBS and a lot more, each trying to persuade you to subscribe to watch the newest original series that you can’t watch anywhere else (oh, and some platforms decided to take some series back from larger platforms to their own little, but growing platform, like NBC did with the Office on Netflix – yeah, only one year left to watch, unless you buy an NBC service, because why not).
And, of course, there is no way to bundle them together in a package for an acceptable fee. Well, the bundling can happen, but you get lots of stuff you don’t want but still have to pay for and what does it sound like? Oh yeah, that’s cable TV! So, when the media representatives carelessly throw the word greed, it should be taken with a grain of salt (or with an entire bag). Don’t get me wrong, this is not a justification for piracy or illegal streaming, it’s just to understand why someone who can afford a service can decide to go the alternative route.
Are websites such as 123Movies really illegal?
I have already used the term illegal when talking about ‘free’ streaming websites, so you kind of get the idea that indeed, not only creating, but also watching the content on 123Movies (GoStream or GoMovies) is illegal. Why is that? Well, because the content is copyrighted and the website owners don’t pay a dime to the media conglomerates, instead, they either pirate the movie or series and stream it from their servers or just go straight to the source (the cinema) and film the movie, spice it up with some ads and they’re good to go.
Yes, there’s a difference between torrenting and watching a movie online since the former is actively distributing the downloaded content, while the latter does not, but even downloading the file to your computer temporarily or even partially is seen as a major offense is some states and countries (it all depends on the jurisdiction).
So, in the end, if you are caught watching a movie from an illegal streaming website, the question is whether you’re liable to pay a smaller or a bigger fine.
Can I really get prosecuted for watching 123Movies?
I know that this is what you came from, but the answer is not that straight forward since it’s both yes and no. The way the lawyers operate changes every year, so, while the general consensus was that if you don’t upload copyrighted content and don’t distribute it, you should be kind of safe, well, downloading copyrighted content, even if temporary is still considered enough to get you prosecuted (there are traces of that file in the system, the most basic ones being the Cookies).
But, if you were streaming movies from GoMovies or the GoStream site in your home (not in public, where others can see – such as bars or restaurants), you could remain in a sort of gray zone, especially since it is very expensive to go after one user for watching a episode from a series, instead of actually putting those resources and try to bring down the website itself. So, the most common tactic was to just scare the user by sending a cease and desist letter after requesting the address and the name linked to the IP address from the ISP. There have been cases when the user would get a fine, although very rare and usually in the EU (Germany is dead serious about this type of offense) and, considering that the police funds are usually routed to more dangerous threats to society than a person watching the final episode of Game of Thrones, most people believe they are fine.
But that can change since Hollywood studios have started exercising what is called the ‘reverse class action’. This basically means that instead of going after a single individual, the media conglomerates reduce the cost significantly by taking legal action against a few hundred people under a single lawsuit. This means that the lawyers could summon every person that has its IP address associated to a particular file that has been downloaded and now it has just gotten significantly cheaper. it’s worth mentioning that this type of process is currently running in Canada, but will be implemented in the USA very soon.
It’s difficult to say whether the reverse class action can’t be easily dismissed since some may say that if you are clicking on a button or an ad, the streaming could start without you explicitly saying to your browser to download that data and if you don’t distribute it, it could simply be a case of carelessness – I am not a lawyer, so don’t take this opinion as a fact. Even if the reverse class lawsuits won’t hold that well in court, there are other means to punish the users, such as the possible throttling of those services and, after the Internet neutrality law has been canceled not that long ago, the ISPs do have the means to limit (or deny) the access to certain websites.
Will a VPN protect my identity?
VPNs have been used for websites that have the annoying geo-locking feature in place (so you can watch content that’s blocked in your area), but they have also been considered ‘the safe way to torrent’ for a very long time, so VPNs can definitely help with movie streaming, right? Well, yes, a good VPN can indeed protect your identity, but only if certain conditions are met. Specifically, you do get a new IP from your VPN which would then be asked to provide your true identity and, if the VPN doesn’t keep logs, then that’s as far as they can go (there is the matter of the credit card info associated to your account, but I doubt anyone would go to these lengths).
Of course, there are other ways to arrive at your door, even if you use a good VPN: if you have registered an account on that website with your email address and even if it’s a ‘burner’ email address, the website that gave it to you may still keep log of your IP address. There is also the possibility of DNS leaks and the configuration of a killswitch function, but, again, these websites are illegal to use and can be incredibly dangerous from the security point of view, so you should steer clear.
Can I get a virus from 123Movies, GoMovies or GoStream? (And how to protect myself)
Let’s say you are in a country were you are not actively at the risk of being prosecuted, so you happily open the GoStream site (or its alternatives) and, as expected, every click will open one or more popups, new windows and lots of ads. While you start clicking the right x icon to close all these intrusive ads, the malware, the spyware, trojans, worms and other types of viruses are ready to wreck havoc in your computer – and, if you have some smart device interconnected, you could potentially compromise your entire network.
The consequences of such an act could simply be a single computer being infected and in worst case scenario, you may need to reinstall the operating system (it’s usually Windows OS), but the infection could spread to your phone, to your router (which can, in the future become a ‘zombie’ in a DDOS attack) and you could expose the password to your email, to your social media websites, to a banking system, you could loose all your data (a thesis that you’ve been working on for a long time, photos and so on).
The consequences can be catastrophic, but there are some ways to keep yourself safe, such as having a non-pirated antivirus and anti-malware installed (a pirated one can inject its own set of malware and viruses), to use some browser-based ad-blocker (most streams won’t work at all when they detect ad-blockers, so they will be asking you to stay vulnerable) and one of the best solutions is to set a router based ad-blocking system (I have explored some solutions here: block ads using an ASUS router or a Linksys router) or to install Pi-Hole on a cheap Raspberry Pi – this way, the malicious ads are blocked at the DNS level and won’t load at all to your end, fully protecting your computer from potential harm. Don’t take this as an endorsement to use illegal websites, it’s just a way to protect yourself and your family from malicious websites – a kid that aimlessly roams the web and stumbles upon a ‘free to watch’ movie shouldn’t potentially destroy any projects that his parents have been working for months or years (it happens more often than you can imagine in the IT world).