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Download data versus piracy claims: the figures don’t add up

Debunking the content industry's scare campaign

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Comment First, a declaration of interest. Before I joined El Reg, I was working on an analyst project (PDF/721 KB) with Sydney company Market Clarity led by long-time friend Shara Evans.

This project yielded a couple of data points that are relevant to claims about internet piracy in this country. The first is that while most broadband plans in Australia offer very high download allowances these days, household users still average only around 6 to 7 GB per month. The second, related to the first, is that we generally hang around the bargain bins when buying broadband: most of us buy on price rather than download allowances.

If you believe the claims made by the music industry – for example, in the now-notorious Sphere Analysis report – then 4.7 million Australians are pirates and proud of it.

One reason I have trouble with this figure is that it either equals or slightly exceeds (depending on your data source) the number of household fixed broadband connections, which is roughly* 4.5 million (it's almost impossible to accept mobile broadband as a hotbed of piracy. Until recent months, mobile broadband has offered very skinny download allowances, it's relatively expensive, and performance is at best uncertain).

It makes the industry's claims sound like an old-style holy-roller, waving his arms over the crowd and yelling into the microphone "We are all sinners, every one!"

Any 1:1 relationship between broadband subscriptions and piracy suggests either that the estimate of pirates is too high or the definition is too broad.

Ahh, I hear you say, but there's usually more than one user per fixed broadband connection, isn't there?

Yes. Let's rework our figures a little, and allow a median of two individuals per household broadband connection. By that count, there are nine million users, more than half of which are pirates (by the Sphere Analysis definition). That's in line with the general industry claims, but there's still a problem.

As I said, Australian broadband users shop in the bargain bins, and we have frugal download habits. More than half of those 4.5 million subscribers consume less than the 6 GB average (the average is almost certainly dragged upwards by the outliers – the heaviest downloaders).

In other words, our 4.7 million pirates seems to encompass all the users on all the subscriptions that download more than 6 to 7 GB per month.

I'm back to a 1:1 relationship again, albeit of a slightly different kind. The content industry's claims suggest that all "above average" users are pirates. There is no heavy downloader whose usage is professional (running a home-based business, as I do; or regularly working from home and running a VPN to the office). There is no heavy downloader who is patronising legal content like the ABC's iView.

Heavy downloaders aren't using lots of video chat with friends, or playing lots of online games, or anything else that might legitimise their high consumption: all of them are pirates.

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