Opinion: News Corp and the Myth of Harm Caused by FileSharing

IIC has been doing a round-table on what it calls “content piracy” in Asia recently. The event caught the attention of Mike Masnick on TechDirt who said that this round table was clearly one-sided. We took a look at the questions and felt like adding a few thoughts as well.

Note: This is an article I wrote that was published elsewhere first. It has been republished here for archival purposes

One of the things that caught our attention was the mention of Alexa:

In both Singapore and Malaysia, for instance, close to half of all Internet users are accessing online piracy sites. Moreover, in Indonesia, the Alexa rankings place the well known rogue site 4shared.com as the 12thmost popular site for Indonesians to access, with facebook ranking first and Wikipedia 13th.

I think it should be emphasized that Alexa is only one site that measures the popularity of websites. The problem many have cited in the past with Alexa is that only people who either have the Alexa toolbar installed and people who otherwise have Alexa technology logging their activity actually counts as measured data for the Alexa statistics. What this means is that not everyone’s visits are actually counted. Therefore, this is only a sample of Internet traffic and not a comprehensive survey that gauges the popularity of a website.

In addition to this, just because a person visits a website like 4Shared doesn’t always mean that it’s for infringing purposes. Someone could have chopped up a Linux distribution into Rar chunk files and uploaded it to that site for someone else. We’re not saying that all traffic is not infringing, but we are also saying that not all traffic to any website is infringing either.

Since we are on the topic of Asia, we would like to direct some attention to one of the 20 studies we looked at in our well known 20 study long “What FileSharing Studies Really Say” series which also pointed out that filesharing is also used for political activity not otherwise covered through traditional means like major news outlets. So, knowing this, that further shows that not every webhit to an allegedly rogue website automatically means that there’s infringing activity occurring in the first place.

The notice then lists off a few questions that the panel would be covering. One of them was, “What impact are these sites having on legitimate businesses?”

For some, this may seem like a loaded question on first glance, but it really is an open-ended question. In reference to the voluminous body of science that has frequently covered this topic, I would say that these sites either have very little impact or a net positive impact on newer and lesser known content creators. Of course, noticeably absent in this question is an reference to content creators which I think is unfortunate. In any event, any negative impact by the websites alleged to be “dedicated to infringement” would be so miniscule, it wouldn’t be worth the resources to hire a lobbyist to go down to the government and demand a changing of the laws. If you look at it from a creators perspective, an overwhelming majority of the time, the downloading of content should be actively encouraged unless you are the top of the top richest content creator (in which case, ignoring this activity is probably the most common-sense approach). From a business perspective, the amount of time and resources to even go after such websites is not even worth it. At most, the amount of effort needed would be to think, “Oh, people download our content for free online.” and then leave it at that.

Another question read, “Are there arguments against actions aimed to reduce the impact of these overseas rogue websites?”

Masnick responded to this question with the following:

Apparently, all the concerns about collateral damage, free speech, due process, internet security and the like fell on deaf ears at News Corp. Instead, they seem to be wondering how anyone could possibly have an argument against the next SOPA. An intellectually honest discussion would at least admit that there are arguments being made both for and against these kinds of actions, and actually explore the reality. As we’ve noted plenty of times in the past, it’s no secret that online infringement represents a challenge for established players, but that doesn’t mean the immediate reaction should be to go on the attack in a way that creates many more problems, and is unlikely to solve the problem they think they’re attacking. So, the argument “against” going after such websites is that it won’t work, it’s a waste of time and money, it will have tons of collateral damage… and you can better deal with the “problem” by providing more quality legitimate services without restrictions and at better prices.

For me, this question is also somewhat loaded given that it assumes that the sites are actually having an impact in the first place (to which science would generally say “no”) Again, the impact they have are so minimal, it’s hard to justify spending the time and resources to go after them.

What’s more is that this roundtable page actually inadvertently shows the futility of going after the sites in question. Last year, MegaUpload was the allegedly big bad evil rogue website as far as Hollywood was concerned. After a highly questionable shutdown and raid as well as a botched investigation, we now have a huge controversy over in New Zealand over how US authorities conduct themselves with citizens in other sovereign countries and a new alleged number one bad and evil rogue website. Once one site is shut down, everyone just picked up and moved to the next available website and carried on as if nothing really happened in the first place. This phenomenon has been observes all the way back when Napster was shut down. Everyone picked up and moved to things like Kazaa, WinMX, Bearshare, eMule and Limewire. It’s a phenomenon most have referred to as “whack-a-mole” for the better part of a decade.

Of course, we also know that, as we’ve seen in the past, the major multinational corporations would thumb their noses at reality, create their own reality bubble and pretend that they’re actually accomplishing something by creating new laws like a three strikes law or hiring a company to pretend something is actually being accomplished by sending millions of DMCA takedown notices even if mistakes happen sometimes in the process.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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