Blocking Offshore Pirate Websites: It can be Both Effective and Manageable


A recently released study by Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) examines the effectiveness of internet site blocking to control copyright piracy in the UK, and comes to some interesting conclusions. The authors (Brett Danaher, Michael D. Smith and Rahul Telang from CMU’s School of Public Policy and Management) compared their latest work to earlier research they had done where Pirate Bay—but only Pirate Bay—had been blocked in the UK (in 2012). The earlier action led to little change in total piracy and no change in paid legal streaming, suggesting that the blocking of a single site, when many alternatives remain available, is ineffective. This time, they examined the consumer response when 53 piracy websites were blocked in the UK in November 2014. To quote from their abstract,

“We found that these blocks caused a 90% drop in visits to the blocked sites while causing no increase in usage of unblocked sites. This led to a 22% decrease in total piracy for all users affected by the blocks (or a 16% decrease across all users overall). We also found that these blocks caused a 6% increase in visits to paid legal streaming sites like Netflix and a 10% increase in videos viewed on legal ad-supported streaming sites like BBC and Channel 5.”

Building on the CMU research, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), in a paper released this month has drilled down further and expanded on the study to look not only at the impressive results in the UK but also to extrapolate the UK example to the 24 other countries that maintain some form of internet site blocking against offshore copyright infringers. More important, the ITIF paper (by researcher Nigel Cory), How Website Blocking is Curbing Digital Piracy without “Breaking the Internet”, examines and rebuts the usual criticisms of site blocking, i.e. too costly (for ISPs) to implement, technically difficult with the potential to cause disruptions in the functioning of the internet, can be easily bypassed, opens the door to state-sanctioned interference with the free flow of information on the internet, etc. These are examples of the arguments dredged up during the SOPA debate in the US in 2011.

I’ll examine these objections in a moment, but first let’s see to what extent site blocking is effective in curtailing piracy. Apart from the impressive numbers cited in the CMU abstract regarding reduced piracy, as well as increased access to legitimate paid sites, the research shows that relatively few users circumvented the blocking and that blocking had the greatest impact on the heaviest consumers of pirated product—many of them tech-savvy users for whom a blocked site can sometimes be just a challenge to overcome. Cory’s paper points out that site blocking is not a silver bullet; rather it is but one weapon in the anti-piracy arsenal that includes making available a wider range of legitimate product at competitive prices (this is clearly happening today), seeking the cooperation of payment processors and others in the supply chain, providing ongoing education to consumers, and consistent enforcement. Despite the availability of various enforcement mechanisms, site blocking is effective because it removes the immediate temptation to infringe and creates a barrier that will usually deter the casual user. Admittedly the barrier can be overcome with time and effort, but with the increased presence of cost effective alternative legitimate services, defeating the barrier is not worth the effort for many people. It is like supplementing a “no trespassing” sign with a fence and a locked gate. You really have to want to get inside to go to the extra effort.

In terms of rebutting the main arguments against site blocking, the ITIF paper does a convincing job. The principal argument for implementing site blocking for copyright infringement, and for demonstrating that it does not “break the internet,” is the fact that it is already being done widely for a number of law enforcement purposes. Among these is global blockage on child pornography sites as sanctioned through INTERPOL, blockage of sites that promote terrorism, and blocking for other specified purposes such as racism and hate speech (Germany), online gambling (Singapore, Quebec), dissemination of malware and investment fraud (Australia), and so on. If site blocking can be used to enforce national laws against these illegal activities, why should it not be used to help curb illegal activity in the area of copyright infringement? There is nothing special about the digital environment that suspends the laws of gravity when something is done online. If it is illegal in the offline world, it is illegal in the online world, and using online measures to respond to illegal online activity, it seems to this observer, is reasonable and proportionate.

Ah, you say, but what about China and the Great Firewall? How can we criticize China if we allow site blocking ourselves for such things as copyright infringement? Ironically, infringement of copyright is not one of the criteria that China applies when blocking content. (Perhaps if the content in question was a pirated version of a speech on Tibetan independence by the Dalai Lama it would qualify!). It is important to differentiate between blocking the internet because a regime does not want certain information to reach its population, and limits on access for a limited specified purpose imposed pursuant to a transparent legal process. Despite the clear difference however, the issue of blocking access to copyright infringing content and blocking freedom of expression can become confused and highly politicized. This happened in Taiwan when its copyright agency tried to introduce site blocking legislation to guard against pirate websites based in China. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, there was a political reaction against the measure over concerns that it was the first step on the slippery slope toward the kind of political controls imposed in China. This was clearly not the case, but sometimes emotions prevail over logic.

It is important that democratic governments defend the freedom of the internet, but all freedom comes with some limitations. As long as limits are sanctioned by the courts for the purpose of enforcing specified laws enacted by democratically elected institutions, site blocking poses no threat to internet freedom. Crying wolf against the supposed erosion of freedom of expression on the internet is a popular way to oppose use of site blocking for copyright infringement, but it just does not hold water.

Other arguments advanced by critics of site blocking include cost and technical issues. There is a cost to ISPs to block sites, just as there is a cost to the content industry to allow all consumers open access to illegal and infringing sites located beyond the reach of domestic law. But costs are controllable, reasonable and are coming down as technology improves. If the costs are manageable and the technical issues surmountable for site blocking for one set of laws, it is not credible to argue that application of the same process to enforce another set of laws is not feasible. At the end of the day, it comes down to a decision as to whether intellectual property is going to be accorded the same degree of protection as other law enforcement issues in our society where site blocking has been invoked.

The CMU study of what happened in the UK has demonstrated pretty convincingly that site blocking can make a difference in controlling piracy and changing consumer behaviour, even amongst hard-core users of pirate websites. The ITIF paper makes an equally sound case that the arguments against site blocking are not convincing. If it works in the UK, Australia and the other twenty or so countries that use site blocking to combat offshore digital piracy, there is no reason why it can’t work elsewhere, as long as the countries implementing these measures have a transparent and independent judiciary that can sanction targeted blocking when justified for legal reasons.

As a measure to combat piracy, it has been shown to be both effective and manageable. Now we just need the will to do it more widely.

© Hugh Stephens, 2016. All Rights Reserved.




Goodbye Gary Fung and Isohunt


The news a couple of weeks ago that Gary Fung, former CEO of BitTorrent site Isohunt had settled a lawsuit brought against him by the Canadian music industry (now known as Music Canada, formerly the Canadian Recording Industry Association-CRIA), for $66 million (CAD) brought back memories of Isohunt’s prominence in past years as one of the leading international websites promoting copyright piracy. It was a dubious distinction for a Canadian website to be up there among the Pirate Bays of this world, those kings of piracy whose principals are usually based in Eastern Europe and whose domain addresses represent parts of the world so obscure that even a geographer would have difficulty finding them on a map. (Yes, there is a domain registry for South Georgia “.gs”, a remote island in the South Atlantic populated full time only by penguins). Continue reading “Goodbye Gary Fung and Isohunt”

The Asian Dilemma: Leaps in Technology bring new forms of Piracy


We have all seen the famous photo of the Buddhist monk, clad in his saffron robes and riding his motorcycle, with his cell phone clamped to his ear. Who is he calling? The abbot? A fast food restaurant down the road? We don’t know but we do know that Asia has leapfrogged over more established wired markets in the use, in particular, of mobile technology, but also other technologies. Most of Asia skipped the land-line phase for telephony, and is now forging new paths in content delivery…and content theft, enabled by rapidly evolving technology. Continue reading “The Asian Dilemma: Leaps in Technology bring new forms of Piracy”

“Free” TV or “Free Riding”?


“Watch TV for Free” screamed the online ad. What? No more cable bills? Never again pay for content? How is this possible? Well my friend, just buy this “fully loaded” streaming TV box and let the era of free entertainment begin! Continue reading ““Free” TV or “Free Riding”?”

Copyright in Taiwan: the China Factor


In my last blog, I talked about Taiwan’s history of weak intellectual property protection going back to the days of the “ingenious rascals”, the industrial-scale book pirates of Chungking Street in the 1950s and 1960s, but also about the remarkable change that has taken place in recent years as it has climbed the ladder of creativity and innovation. At the same time, I noted concerns expressed by the US copyright industries over a “stalling” of Taiwan’s progress in terms of protecting IP, particularly copyright. How serious is this stalling, and what factors are at play? Nothing happens in isolation. The intellectual property situation in Taiwan is affected by broader political developments internally—and has to be viewed in the context of its challenging relations with China. Continue reading “Copyright in Taiwan: the China Factor”

From the Pirate Booksellers of Chungking Street to Taiwan Today (Taiwan Blog #1)


Taiwan, 23 million people, lives in the shadow of its huge cousin on the mainland, China (the Peoples’ Republic), population 1.3 billion…more or less. In many ways Taiwan years ago was a microcosm of what China is today, and is today what China may one day become. There are many elements to the complicated and complex Taiwan-China relationship, and copyright is just a tiny slice of that relationship. But it is illustrative. Continue reading “From the Pirate Booksellers of Chungking Street to Taiwan Today (Taiwan Blog #1)”

China and the Content Industry: Friend or Foe? (Part Two)


In my blog last week, I talked about the growing role of China as an essential revenue generator for foreign content producers. The most recent projections indicate that China will become the world’s largest film market by revenue as early as next year. This offers great opportunity for foreign content producers, notably the Hollywood studios, but throws into relief the range of market access restrictions imposed by China, despite its membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO). Foreign content producers, particularly in the area of films, would dearly love to remove or at least whittle away at these barriers. There will be an opportunity to do so in 2017 when a US-China agreement on films comes up for renewal. Continue reading “China and the Content Industry: Friend or Foe? (Part Two)”