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

Debunking the content industry's scare campaign

NBN scare campaign

I've spent a lot of words on the industry's assumptions about the number of pirates, because it is fundamental to the industry's scare campaign about the NBN.

The argument goes like this: if we wander around Australia connecting people to fibre willy-nilly, we'll turn them all into pirates.

People's behaviour tomorrow is almost certain to resemble their behaviour today: many users will still shop in the bargain bins, and they'll download less than their allowance.

In the case of the NBN, most customers aren't going to immediately leap on the fastest plan available. They'll start small and slow, with 12 Mbps or 25 Mbps download speeds and modest allowances.

If we want to make any valid extrapolation of today's behaviour into the NBN-connected world, we surely have to start with an accurate understanding of today's behaviour. It's easy – too easy – to scream "piracy", and much harder to make the numbers fit.

The mobile user

At the start, I ignored the mobile user. Here's why: according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics data, which covers the same time periods as the industry scare-stories, the average mobile user's download throughput was far less than the fixed user: around 2.5 GB per customer, per month.

Even if a million of those are substitutes – mobile customers with no fixed line – mobile broadband downloads are too small to sustain huge volumes of piracy in the customer base.

Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I don't believe in coincidence. It's no coincidence that the content industry is unveiling both a new lobby and a new set of numbers, at the same time as the American government is pushing for countries to adopt onerous IP protections under a new treaty.

It looks like cause and effect, to me: the Obama Administration's TPP proposals embody what the content industry wants, and here in Australia, the content industry is marshalling arguments that we need stronger laws – like those proposed under the TPP.

The tragedy in all of this is that Canberra has appeared so willing to embrace this kind of data. There are smart people on ministerial staff, believe it or not – I have met some of them – and they are quite capable of conducting the sort of reality-check analysis I've outlined above.

The other tragedy is the Internet industry's long history of being unable to open the right doors in Canberra. If they are to resist the content industry's push, Australia's ISPs need to become successful politicians – fast.

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*For this article, my estimate of fixed broadband users was taken from the latest ABS data. I applied the business:household split to the mobile broadband user base, and subtracted this estimate, around 2.2 million non-business mobile users, to the total number of broadband customers (6.7 million).

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