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Website Blocking Revisited

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By Brett Danaher, Michael D. Smith and Rahul Telang

Blocking access to sites that promote piracy is one of the more controversial enforcement proposals for dealing with online copyright infringement. Many in the entertainment industry have argued that website blocking is an important and necessary strategy to convince consumers to access content through legal channels. However, many other observers argue that blocking access to pirate sites will simply cause pirates to move to other, unblocked, sites, leaving demand for legal content unchanged.  How can we test which of these assertions best matches real-world consumer behavior? With data, of course.

Several court orders in the UK have instructed large ISPs to block certain sites that offer pirated content, beginning in 2012 with the blocking of the Pirate Bay and continuing most recently with an order to block 53 sites in November 2014. These orders and subsequent blocking actions create an empirical test: Have these actions reduced piracy and increased the use of legal streaming sites?  If so, by how much?

In a 2015 study, “The Effect of Piracy Website Blocking on Consumer Behavior,” we found that the 2012 blocking of The Pirate Bay, probably the most well-known pirate site in the world, had a small impact on total piracy: blocking just one site appeared to drive users to other pirate sites, resulting in little change in the usage of legal streaming services.  However, the results were different when the UK blocked an additional 19 sites in November 2013.  These blocks resulted in a significant decrease in overall piracy, and caused visits to legal subscription streaming sites to increase by 12% on average. Apparently, blocking just one site didn’t increase the cost to discover pirate sites enough to change user behavior but blocking the 20 most popular piracy websites did, causing at least some former pirates to switch their consumption to legal channels.

We recently released an update to our analysis, “Website Blocking Revisited: The Effect of the UK November 2014 Blocks on Consumer Behavior.” In this new paper, we asked whether blocking 53 piracy websites—which more than doubled the total number of sites being blocked in the UK—affected consumer behavior and how that impact compared to previous blocks. We found that blocking these 53 sites caused a 90% drop in visits to the blocked sites, with no simultaneous increase in usage of unblocked sites. We also found that blocking the sites led to a 22% decrease in total piracy (including blocked and unblocked sites) for all UK users of the blocked sites, and a 16% decrease in piracy consumption across all UK internet users. Finally, we found that blocking these sites caused a 10% increase in videos viewed on legal ad-supported streaming sites such as BBC and Channel 5 and a 6% increase in the use of legal subscription streaming sites such as Netflix.

Together, our research suggests that ongoing site blocking can have a statistically and economically significant impact on consumer behavior and can mitigate the possibility of a long-term return to the prior status quo when it comes to piracy.