A Year after Blocking 53 Websites, UK Piracy Drops And the Internet Still Functions

A lot of very silly arguments get passed around the Internet by those who desperately want to believe them. Remember the argument that piracy of copyrighted material really didn’t hurt artists financially, and in fact helped them? It took three researchers from Carnegie Mellon University to bury that ridiculous notion once and for all. 1

Well, our intrepid trio is at it again, this time taking on the contentious issue of website blocking, which if you only listen to extremists like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, you would think that this will lead to the destruction of the internet as we know it. 2 A year ago, I wrote how courts in three different countries had ordered website blocking, and yet the internet failed to spontaneously self-destruct. 3 In the ensuing year, I haven’t noticed that my internet behaves any differently than it did before. This is because the EFF doesn’t understand the difference between criminal copyright infringement and legitimate free speech.

So now we have this study that shows that not only does site blocking work, but the internet remains unscathed.

Titled “Website Blocking Revisited: The Effect of the UK November 2014 Blocks on Consumer Behavior,” 4 Brett Danaher, Michael D. Smith, and Rahul Telang make an in depth analysis of consumer behavior in the United Kingdom following the court ordered site blocking of 53 websites. I will note, as I do when Google funds a study, 5 that this research is a part of Carnegie Mellons “Initiative for Digital Entertainment Analytics,” which is partially funded by an unrestricted grant from the MPAA.

Their findings conclude: 6

  • The blocks reduced visits to the infringing sites by 90% over a 14 month period
  • There was no corresponding increase in visits to unblocked pirate sites
  • There was a corresponding decrease in piracy of 22%
  • There was a corresponding 6% increase of visits to legal pay streaming sites such as Netflix
  • There was a corresponding 10% increase in visits to legal free (ad supported) streaming sites


So how did the whole “blocking doesn’t work” narrative get started? Because at the start it was just one website that was blocked: the notorious “Pirate Bay.”

“[C]ourt ordered blocking of The Pirate Bay in the UK caused only a small decrease in total piracy levels because most former users of The Pirate Bay switched to other unblocked piracy sites. Thus, the event did not cause any increase in paid legal streaming of movies or television. However, when 19 major piracy sites were simultaneously blocked in November 2013, Danaher et al. found that this action caused a meaningful reduction in total piracy levels in the UK and also caused a statistically and economically significant increase in usage of paid legal streaming sites (like Netflix).” 7

The blocking of 53 websites in November of 2014 also reduced piracy levels and increased legitimate consumption, but did not have nearly the positive effect of the 19 blocks put into place in 2013. 8

The question then becomes, “why didn’t the blocks prevent 100% of the visits to the blocked sites? Doesn’t this mean that site blocking doesn’t work in the end?”

Well, first of all, no law is 100% effective. My daily commute to work is empirical evidence that laws against speeding, even at a very generous 65 mph, do not prevent people from greatly exceeding the speed limit. So, a determined pirate will find ways around it, in this case the VPN or “virtual private network” which masks your location from the ISP. The study bears this out.

“The coefficient of interest for visits to VPN sites is positive and significant  at  the  90%  confidence  level,  indicating  that for  every  10  additional  visits  to blocked sites before the blocks, a consumer increased their visits to VPN sites after the blocks by an additional 30%… In spite of this increase in VPN usage however, our data show the blocks caused a decrease in total piracy.” 9


“There  are  several  potential  reasons  for  why the drop was not 100%…some ISPs may not have blocked all of the sites until sometime in December, depending on how long it took them to comply…[additionally] some smaller ISPs were not targeted by the court orders and thus did not participate in the blocks.” 10

Additional points were raised in a companion paper by Nigel Cory of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation. 11 It posits that one of the reasons site blocking is successful is that it does not rely on coercive factors, the enforcement of which can vary.

“Government interventions targeting online infringement can reduce piracy, especially when done in cooperation with firms to promote legal content, but when enforcement activity loses credibility, piracy and sales of legal content revert to original levels. (endnote omitted) For example, the 32 percent decrease in piracy caused by Sweden’s IPRED law (which made it easier for rights holders to detect and identify file sharers) returned to previous levels after six months as the public realized it was not going to be enforced. (endnote omitted)” 12

Mr. Cory also points out that the costs of website blocking is not as prohibitive as some might lead you to believe.

“The cost to block the first website in the United Kingdom, for NewzBin2, was $7,100 for the main domain and $142 for each subsequent site (if the website operator tried to move to another site). (endnote omitted) Without providing a detailed breakdown, an Australian government estimate gave the cost per ISP to enact website blocking as $95,000 annually. (endnote omitted) Estimates by Astralian ISPs also vary—from $36 per domain name (TPG Internet), to $183 per site and $29 per DNS (M2 Communications), to $7,350 in labor costs for setting up initial compliance, $2,200 for a landing page, and $18 per additional site (Telstra). (endnote omitted)” 13

And let’s not kid ourselves, this is for-profit criminal copyright infringement, as the arrests 14 of the principals and shuttering of the notorious pirate site KickassTorrent demonstrated last week. 15 This is no more an affront to the principles of free speech than bans on the distribution of child pornography.

Unless, of course, you’re the EFF and defend the rights of people to anonymously access child pornography. 16

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