“Site blocking makes pirates go legal”

3 Questions to Michael D Smith, professor at the Carnegie Mellon University

Can restricting access to pirate websites reduce internet piracy and does it influence legal sales? Many have suggested that the effect is small and that pirates will only move to a different service if one becomes unavailable. A fresh study from Carnegie Mellon University looked into the topic using the UK as guinea pig. Netopia talked to CMU Professor Michael D Smith.

Per Strömbäck: Does blocking pirate websites decrease online piracy?

Michael D Smith: It’s difficult to measure overall changes in piracy levels. What we can measure is how piracy changes for the sites affected by the blocks: The Pirate Bay in May 2012 and 19 additional piracy sites in fall 2013.

When The Pirate Bay was blocked, we saw an 80% reduction in visits to TPB among prior users, and for the 19-site block, we saw a 75% reduction in visits among prior users of those sites.

Why wasn’t there a 100% drop in visits? Three reasons. First, ISPs implemented the blocks over time — some immediately after the blocks were ordered, and some several weeks later. Unfortunately, we don’t know when the users in our data were affected by the block, only when first block occurred. So, to be conservative in our analysis, we assume that all the users in our data experienced the block immediately (even though many users experienced the blocks up to 4 weeks later). Second, when the sites were blocked, many users bypassed the blocks, using Virtual Private Networks, and those visits show up in our data. Third, some smaller ISPs did not implement the blocks and those users’ visits show up in our data.

But to us, the interesting question isn’t whether these blocks reduced piracy visits per se. The interesting question is whether it influenced legal consumption…

PS: Does it increase legal sales?

MDS: Initially, no — there was no statistical change in visits to legal streaming sites when only The Pirate Bay was blocked in May 2012.

However, there was a statistically significant increase in visits to legal streaming sites after 19 additional sites were blocked in fall 2013. After the 19-site block visits to legal streaming sites increased by 12% across all the users in our data. And, the increase was higher among those who previously were heavy users of the blocked sites (23.6% increase in legal site usage after the block occurred) than among the lightest users of the blocked sites (3.5% increase), suggesting that the increase in legal usage is causally related to the blocks.

PS: Don’t internet users find ways to by-pass the block? 

MDS: Yes. After the blocks were implemented, there were large increases in visits to other unblocked torrent sites, visits to unblocked cyberlocker sites, and in the usage of VPN services. As academics studying consumer behavior, we find it interesting that even though there were many ways to get around the blocks, when users found it hard enough to find new pirate sites (i.e., after the additional blocks of 19 prominent piracy sites), many former pirates switched from piracy to legal consumption.



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  1. […] help consumers go legal and action against pirate services make illegal less attractive. A study on site-blocking in the UK showed 75% decrease in illegal consumption and 12% increase in legal consumption. Legal services is […]

  2. “The state determines “this information is undesirable”, and blocks access to it. That is per definition censorship. Obviously you feel that the censorship is warranted in this case, an opinion you are obviously entitled to. But to claim it isn’t censorship at all… Wow.”

    Martin, you got it all wrong. Copyright is not about restriction of information, it is about individual creative works and falls in the category of service and property. Copyright does therefor not restrict information, it is a different playing field.

    If copyright infringing sites sites get blocked or taken down, it is more like an illegal DVD sales stall gets closed by the police. About 98% of the court rulings have therefor decided that the infringement part outweighs the “freedom of information” idea. This is what courts do, they balance these rights against one another, and then make a decision which right prevails..

    Would in your logic restricting slander, cyber bullying or other forms of personality rights infringement be censorship too?

    The NYT example you are making is different. The press has different rights and they are also providing a public service, so some rights can be considered secondary here for them to perform their duties.

    But it is highly ulikely that the NYT would ever publish entire documents, they would reframe the contents, leaving the information in it intact, probably, and/or use quotes. None of this would be a violation against copyright. And the giovernment could only restrict the NYT to publish documents, if they are secrets or a thread to the national security, etc.

    So, it is always about balancing these rights against each other, which is what courts have previously done. You however are not balancing, you are confusing information, works and property with each other, and you are not balancing anything.

    Oh, and by the way, if restricting any information on the net is plain censorship, what would that mean for your privacy rights or personality rights? They would be causing censorshoip too, as they are restricting the “the flow of information”. Is that a digital society I would like to live in, without having any of these rights? I dont think that the majority of people would want to do that, ieven in exchange for pirated goods….

    So, none of your arguments hold water….

  3. Wow Per, your level of newspeak is truly staggering.

    Limiting access to any form of speech, public communication or information is precisely censorship. It doesn’t matter at all if the “content is illegal”. It is, by definition, only that information that is objectionable that is being censored! Obviously the state will never censor information of which it approves, and by following your logic there could never be any censorship since blocking information that is illegal or objectionable is not censorship.

    The state determines “this information is undesirable”, and blocks access to it. That is per definition censorship. Obviously you feel that the censorship is warranted in this case, an opinion you are obviously entitled to. But to claim it isn’t censorship at all… Wow.

    And what about the blog at TPB? Is that speech not being censored? How about all the artist that use the TPB as a means of distribution. Are they not being censored?

    Consider the a hypothetical case where the New York Times published unlicensed copyrighted material. If the US government stipulated that because of this the New York Times would be banned from being distributed, that would be censorship. It doesn’t matter if this was indeed “illegal content”, completely blocking the newspaper from being distributed would be censorship.

    “Mass distribution of the works of others against their will is neither freedom of expression nor private communication.”

    Well, as you know, TPB is not distributing anything! (You do know that, right?) And with that argument, if a medium of mass distribution, like the New York Times, published unlicensed materials it could be blocked from distribution by the US government without that being censorship since “mass distribution of the works of others against their will is neither freedom of expression nor private communication”.

    Non of your arguments hold water.

  4. Per Strömbäck

    Censorship is when the state prohibits the expression of certain opinions. That has nothing to do with limiting access to illegal content. Private communication is different from public communication, but we had that conversation before. Mass distribution of the works of others against their will is neither freedom of expression nor private communication.

  5. Something else that might work would be to mandate that ISPs monitor everyone’s private communications to detect any instance of unlicensed copying. If paired with making encryption illegal and preventing people to communicate anonymously it might actually serve to protect the copyright monopoly!

    Worth trying, wouldn’t you say? Even if it just has a very marginal effect (like censorship), and even though it also violates some of the most important human rights we should at least give it a go?

  6. Hooray! Censorship works. Good on ya!

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