The Effectiveness of Site Blocking: It is a Matter of Common Sense

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Much ink has been spilled of late regarding the new FairPlay Canada Coalition’s proposal to establish a process to have the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) require internet service providers (ISPs) in Canada to disable access to designated offshore websites that host stolen content. According to the proposal, these websites have to be “blatantly, overwhelmingly or structurally engaged in piracy”. In other words, they are not your average site hosting some infringing material, but websites dedicated whole hog to promoting stolen content. An independent agency would make recommendations to the CRTC as to which websites fit the category of blatant infringers.

As soon as the FairPlay Canada proposal was officially launched, and even before, anti-copyright elements in Canada led by anti-copyright crusader Michael Geist were quick to denounce the proposal. Geist is producing an opus on why the FairPlay Coaltion’s proposal is a bad idea. At last count, he has produced over a dozen blog posts attacking the idea, ranging from arguments that there is really no piracy problem anyway (demonstrably not true) to the fact that blocking pirate websites would somehow violate net neutrality, a position equally not supported by the evidence.

Now he is claiming there is no reason to establish a site-blocking regime because site-blocking doesn’t work. He bases this on the argument that it does not stamp out all use of content-theft websites since some die-hard users may continue to find a way around the blocks. This is a fallacious argument. Let’s look at the evidence—-and at the same time apply some good old-fashioned common sense.

Does locking the door of a car or a house guarantee absolutely against theft of the contents inside? Clearly not, or we would not have laws against breaking and entering.

Does locking a car or a house help to prevent and deter theft? Clearly it does, as is shown by the campaigns of many police departments to get people to lock up.

The fact that not all crime is prevented by defensive measures does not invalidate the taking of reasonable steps to deter it. Defensive measures not only deter casual “crimes of opportunity”, they may prevent more determined and serious crime if sufficiently robust. This is what site-blocking is; a proportional defensive measure targeting the main piracy sites used by consumers who patronize these sources of content.

If we look at shoplifting, stores have evolved to embrace security measures, such as cameras, anti-theft tags, and loss prevention staff. However, hardened security in one location can send potential thieves to other, softer targets – smaller businesses who can’t afford the security equipment or hire the staff to chase down thieves. But if all targets are equally inaccessible, it is much easier to combat theft. Let’s look at the numbers to see if this is true when it comes to site blocking.

As we all know, there are lots of statistics out there. If you are selective, and in particular if you use old data, you can dredge up numbers that can, at the very least, cause some doubt as to the degree of effectiveness of a particular measure.

That is what Geist has done with the data available on the effectiveness of site blocking. He cites a 2010 OFCOM study and a 2014 Dutch study that reported on 2012 data. He also reports on a study done in the UK where, in his words, there was “little impact when the Pirate Bay was blocked with authors concluding that effectiveness depended on far broader blocking efforts”.

That is precisely the point. If only a few selected websites like Pirate Bay are blocked, blocking will be ineffective because users will simply shift to the next best alternative. Effectiveness depends on ensuring all the major targets are blocked. In fact, if you read the full quotation in the study cited by Prof. Geist, it says:

“Our results show that blocking The Pirate Bay only caused a small reduction in total piracy—instead consumers seem to turn to other pirate sites or Virtual Private Networks that allowed them to circumvent the block. We thus observed no increase in usage of legal sites. In contrast, blocking 19 different major piracy sites caused a meaningful reduction in total piracy and subsequently led former users of the blocked sites to increase their use of paid legal streaming sites…” (emphasis added)

To selectively pluck a quote out of context—especially when the following sentence in the study goes on to say just the opposite—is misleading at best and at worst, well…. you can draw your own conclusions. In fact rather than casting doubt on the effectiveness of site blocking, the study in question fully supports it, as I pointed out in an earlier blog on this issue.

Geist does quote some contemporary studies. He cites a 2017 INCOPRO study that stated, as its prime conclusion:

“The findings in this report shows that site blocking in Australia has had a positive impact upon the usage of blocked piracy sites, reducing the usage in Australia of the websites targeted by the blocking orders by 71.7% since December 2016.”

That is pretty conclusive but Geist somehow manages to find evidence in the report that is contrary to this very explicit declaration. He zeroes in on the statement in the report that “there may have been an increase in the usage of some unblocked sites as a result of the most popular site being blocked.”

So what? This goes back to the key point that if you lock the front door but leave the back door open, the thieves will go around back. There is nothing surprising here. In fact the INCOPRO study in 2017 and a more recent 2018 study come to the unequivocal conclusion that, in Australia, site blocking works.

As the February 2018 INCOPRO study highlighted as its key conclusion, “Overall usage of piracy sites in Australia is down.”

We could go on all day in a “he said; she said” type of scenario, with Geist cherry-picking excerpts from reports that support site blocking as a positive although not iron-clad solution, while I and others question his interpretations and conclusions. At the end of the day, that may not be the most productive use of time.

Despite the fact there is conclusive evidence that site blocking is an effective weapon against offshore content-theft websites when applied consistently and against most of the major piracy sites, let’s revert to common sense and ask a few basic questions:

“If site blocking is as ineffective as Michael Geist claims, why would this Coalition, which includes most of the major ISPs in the country, ethnic and national broadcasters, major cinema chains, unions and sports entertainment companies, waste time and resources on what would be a quixotic journey?

Why all this effort from so many quarters if it is so obvious that site blocking doesn’t actually work?”

In other words, “What does Michael Geist know that everyone else doesn’t know?”

These are questions to which I have not yet seen any answers.

It’s easy for offshore piracy sites to portray what they do as a victimless crime and for anti-copyright zealots to downplay their significance. But the “pirate business model” of these sites has real impact on jobs and productivity in Canada. Whether Michael Geist is prepared to believe it or not, taking responsible defensive measures is not only justified, it has been proven to be very effective in significantly reducing access to–and therefore use of—sites that depend on the distribution of stolen content.

© Hugh Stephens 2018. All Rights Reserved.

 

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