Hugh Stephens Blog: Disabling Access to Large-Scale Pirate Sites (Site Blocking)—It Works!
As I wrote back in August, recent studies conducted by Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and the Information Technology and Information Foundation (ITIF) have demonstrated convincingly that blocking offshore pirate websites works in terms of changing consumer behaviour (i.e. directing consumers away from infringing content to sources of legitimate content) while at the same time not interfering with normal internet operations. In other words, it does not “break the internet”. The growing awareness and rapid take up of this defensive measure globally illustrates the extent to which disabling access (sometimes called site blocking) can be a highly effective tool to curtail online piracy.
The CMU study was based on the experience in the UK, but Australia has also been one of the pioneers in this area. The first court judgment requiring ISPs to block designated pirate websites (such as Pirate Bay and Solar Movie) was handed down in December 2016, the initial test of new legislation, the Copyright Amendment (Online Infringement) Act, passed in 2015. The action was brought by Village Roadshow and Foxtel. Part of the challenge is that no sooner are sites taken down, than they appear under a different guise. While the courts have ruled that follow on injunctions to block mirror and proxy sites must be under court supervision, the process is becoming simpler and more streamlined in Australia, with the second round of blocking orders being largely uncontested by the Internet Service Providers (ISPs). There is now agreement among the parties that the plaintiffs will pay a flat fee of US$37 per domain blocked to the ISPs. The question of who would pay whom and in what amount for implementing blocking orders has long been an area of contention between content producers and ISPs. This is now resolved.
The efficacy of site blocking has been demonstrated in markets other than the UK and Australia. Studies undertaken in markets as varied as South Korea and Portugal demonstrate convincingly that disabling access works. In Portugal, overall usage of the top 250 infringing websites decreased by 23.4% during the review period even while access to pirate websites globally increased during the same period. A Motion Picture Association study showed that visits to infringing sites in South Korea declined on average 90% three months after disabling access, and there was a 15% decrease in total piracy visits after three rounds of site blocking.Disabling access can clearly lead to sustainable changes in consumer behaviour. Increasingly ISPs are coming to realize that disabling access to infringing sites does not negatively impede their main business of providing access. Indeed, it enhances their ability to do so.
First, the use of infringing websites represents a severe drain on the legitimate digital economy, and represents a shockingly large percentage of all Internet traffic – 23.8% of all Internet bandwidth in North America, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific is based on access to infringing sites. This covers copyrighted content across a wide range of material, from motion pictures to television programming to music, games and software. Second, ISPs are already required to exercise control over a range of websites for other law enforcement purposes, such as combatting child pornography, terrorism, hate sites or even online gambling where such activities are not legal. Finally, many ISP platforms are themselves in the content business. They have either licensed content or have vertically integrated, acquiring content producers in order to differentiate and enhance their offerings to consumers. As a result, some 42 countries have undertaken obligations to disable access, including all the member states of the EU. There has also been wide take-up in Asia Pacific, although the means differ from country to country.
In Singapore, India and Australia measures are based on court orders to block websites after actions are brought by copyright owners. South Korea, Indonesia, and Malaysia use administrative measures based on regulatory oversight of service providers. In Thailand, amendments to the Computer Crime Act were enacted by the Legislative Assembly in December of 2016 and the law is scheduled to go into effect in May. This will provide a narrowly-tailored site blocking remedy for copyright infringing sites in Thailand for the first time. In India, literally hundreds of sites have been blocked. The number of websites ordered blocked in South Korea and Indonesia also numbers in the hundreds, whereas the remedy is more nascent in Australia and Singapore.
While being rolled out in different ways around the globe, the solution of seeking court or administrative remedies to disable—and disable again—access offered by pirate websites that are based in jurisdictions beyond the reach of national courts, is spreading and gaining wider acceptance, both by content providers and ISPs. At the end of the day, it will also be consumers who benefit given the frequency with which users accessing infringing sites are exposed to malware and high risk advertising. In a 2015 study, Dr. Paul Watters of Massey University (New Zealand) concluded that “generally speaking, …high risk advertisers (defined as those promoting the sex industry, gambling, malware and scams) tend to target those (infringing) sites which are promoting Hollywood and/or other international content in English, whereas mainstream advertisers tend to promote their goods and services on local language sites, with local content.”
Based on the UK example, further research by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, DC, expanded on the CMU study and extrapolated its conclusions to 24 other countries that employ some form of access disablement or site blocking. This research showed that site blocking is particularly effective because it removes the immediate temptation to infringe and creates a barrier that will usually deter the casual user. As a result, and to quote the CMU study,
“….these blocks caused a 90% drop in visits to the blocked sites (leading to)… a 22% decrease in total piracy for all users affected by the blocks…. 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….”
Those are impressive statistics. With 42 countries already on board, this technique is inevitably going to grow as a means to keep rampant piracy under control. This will be to the benefit of consumers, creative industries and the providers of internet services themselves. There is increasing media coverage of the topic, such as this opinion piece that recently ran in the Irish Times, making consumers more aware of the risks of accessing infringing websites, the costs to their creative economies of widespread online piracy and the easy availability of a wide range of legal alternatives.
The UK, Australian, Singaporean and South Korean examples show that site blocking can work in developed digital economies. The examples of Indonesia, Malaysia and India show that it can be effective in emerging economies as well. With Thailand coming on board next month, disabling access is gaining further momentum in Asia Pacific and globally. Nothing succeeds like success.
© Hugh Stephens 2017. All Rights Reserved.
 Incopro, Site Blocking Efficacy in Portugal September 2015 to February 2016 (May 2016)
 Motion Picture Association, MPA Study on Site Blocking Impact in South Korea (2016)
 David Price, Sizing the piracy universe, NetNames Envisional, September 2013.