The Bell website blocking coalition unsurprisingly argues that blocking “regimes have been widely adopted internationally because they have been proven to work.” The submission cites data from several countries including the UK, Portugal, and South Korea. As demonstrated last week, the Bell coalition proposal has not been widely adopted internationally. In fact, the overwhelming majority of countries have rejected approaches that do not include court orders. Moreover, a closer look at the data reveals that website blocking is far less effective than its proponents claim.
The reports and studies on the effectiveness of website blocking often contain conflicting data. For example, INCOPRO, which sells site blocking services including lists of sites to block (and therefore has an obvious vested interest in promoting their effectiveness) has issued several studies on blocking. A 2017 INCOPRO study on the effectiveness of Australian website blocking points to reduction in piracy rates but also examined usage of a list of 250 unauthorized sites:
Usage of the top 250 sites in Australia decreased by 4% (204,843) when comparing March 2017 to October 2016. Usage of the same sites reduced by 13% for the global (excluding Australia) group and by 10.8% for the global control group.
The study attributes the fact that Australian declines with site blocking were lower than global averages by acknowledging that “there may have been an increase in the usage of some unblocked sites as a result of the most popular site being blocked.” INCOPRO released a new report on Australia this week that claims continued declines in piracy rates, but still contained evidence that even blocked sites show growth in Australia. For instance, the report references new blocked sites such as HDMoviesWatch.net. According to SimilarWeb, Australia remains the top traffic source for site with its share increasing, not decreasing.
The likely shift of users to other sites or services unless massive blocking systems are deployed has been replicated in studies around the world. For example, a UK study found little impact when the Pirate Bay was blocked with authors concluding that effectiveness depended on far broader blocking efforts. A Dutch study on blocking the Pirate Bay went even further. Despite the expectation of reduced piracy rates:
no such effect is found. Instead, the percentage downloading films & series, games and books from illegal sources in the preceding six months increased between May and November/December 2012, while downloading music from illegal sources remained constant. This implies that any behavioural change in response to blocking access to TPB has had no lasting net impact on the overall number of downloaders from illegal sources, as new consumers have started downloading from illegal sources and people learn to circumvent the blocking while new illegal sources may be launched, causing file sharing to increase again
Many studies suffer from technical shortcomings given the inability to actually track the impact of users shifting to VPNs in order to preserve their privacy and evade blocking efforts. For example, the INCOPRO studies contain a key exclusion:
General purpose VPN and proxy services have been excluded because they allow users to access any website of their choice. As a result, it cannot be definitively concluded that they are being used to access unauthorised sites.
In addition to INCOPRO’s vested interest in claiming that site blocking is effective, the reliability of the data is therefore questionable given that it does not account for users who rely on VPNs for their Internet usage.
In fact, there are no shortage of studies and court rulings that conclude site blocking has little impact:
- The UK’s OFCOM’s 2010 study on site blocking concluded “any injunction scheme operated under sections 17 and 18 of the DEA is unlikely to give rise to a sufficient level of actions to have a material impact on levels of copyright infringement.”
- The UK’s 2017 online copyright infringement tracker found no change in the percentage of users accessing unauthorized content online from the prior year.
- A similar consumer study in Australia obtained the same results with 2017 levels of infringement remaining the same from the prior year.
- A 2015 study by the Council of Europe states plainly that “blocking is not very effective in general.”
- Italy is often touted as an example for site blocking, yet piracy rates of movies has only declined by 4% since 2010 and the rate of television piracy has increased significantly over the same period.
- In Spain, one study found piracy rates dropping by 4%, but some sectors saw an increase and MUSO report ranked Spain as the 4th highest country in the world for piracy ranking, despite the existence of website blocking.
- The ineffectiveness of Pirate Bay blocking led a Dutch court to lift a court ordered block in 2014, concluding “the block is not justified and will no longer be enforced.”
- A 2015 European Commission sponsored study that tracked the effect of shutting down a popular German video streaming site found only short-lived reductions in piracy levels as users gravitated to other sources.
The ineffectiveness of website blocking was perhaps best illustrated by an example from the MUSO report relied upon by the Bell coalition. Putlocker.is, which is identified by MUSO as sample streaming site, is on the blocklist in both Australia and the UK (both established through court rulings, not administrative hearings). Despite being blocked in Australia and the UK, SimilarWeb reports that site visits to Putlocker.is are greater in both Australia and the UK than in Canada. Canada is also declining faster as a traffic source than Australia, the UK, and the United States.
Site blocking is touted by the Bell coalition as a proverbial silver bullet to its piracy concerns. The case against the Bell coalition proposal has already addressed the weak evidence on the state of Canadian piracy and its limited impact. Yet even if the piracy claims were taken at face value, studies from around the world indicate only limited impact from site blocking in the longer term. Given the many negative effects of site blocking (including over-blocking and the expansion to other areas), the risks far outweigh the benefits.