More than two-and-a-half million Australians visited the two largest illegal content download websites in May, data shows.
The figures, from Australia's digital industry ratings agency Nielsen, show the scope of illegal content downloading in Australia, and the scale of the threat this poses to media businesses in the country.
These Nielsen Online Ratings Hybrid figures show an unduplicated audience for The Pirate Bay and Kickass Torrent — the two largest sites — of almost 2.8 million users last month. Nielsen estimates the total market of internet users in Australia at 17.3 million.
The Pirate Bay and Kickass Torrent are portal sites that give visitors access to locations of content files that can be downloaded. The numbers do not count multiple visits from users, or how many files each user accessed.
Adding in audience reach for other sites, the data show at least three million Australians visited a torrent website in May. This comes after it was revealed Australia was one of the main illegal download locations for the season four finale of hit HBO series Game of Thrones.
TorrentFreak reported the episode set a new record for illegal downloads this week, with about 1.5 million users accessing a copy. Australia was already considered one of the main locations for piracy of this and other popular shows released earlier in the US.
"Australia, I'm sorry to say, is the worst offender of any country in the world when it comes to [online] piracy, and I am very concerned that the legitimate rights and interests of rights holders and content creators are being compromised by that activity," Attorney-General George Brandis in a recent Senate estimates hearings.
"We want to do something about that."
In May 1.856 million users accessed the Pirate Bay, the largest site in terms of Australian audience, and 1.675 million accessed Kickass Torrent, according to the Nielsen data.
The sites share a duplicated audience of 751,000, but even when this figure is subtracted, the data shows 2.78 million Australians accessed one of the two during May.
Again, this data does not capture the total volume of downloads, just the total Australian audience for the website. There's no way of telling how many files each user downloaded. But the data do give a reasonable estimate of the number of people in Australia that the major torrent sites reach.
There are other ways to access torrent files beyond websites, including within torrent software programs such as BitTorrent and uTorrent.
The scale of illegal downloads are an issue for businesses such as Foxtel, who have licensing rights to popular content, such as Game of Thrones, and other hit shows which are a big part of their offering to subscribers.
"Illegal downloading is a serious problem that affects more than just Foxtel’s business," a spokesperson for the company said.
"It’s important to understand that it undermines the viability of all creative businesses. it’s not just an issue for businesses it affects the livelihoods of actors, writers, directors, set designers, and everyone else involved in the production of these programs."
The Foxtel spokesperson said the company had been involved in discussions with both sides of politics over policy options to curb piracy rates in Australia.
"The responsibility for combating illegal downloading doesn’t just stop with the government, it’s something that needs to be shouldered by everyone," the spokesperson said.
"Unfortunately, Australian law has fallen behind the rest of the world on this issue, therefore the Government should put in place a regulatory system that encourages legitimate use and discourages illegitimate use of content."
Foxtel also said internet service providers should take more of a role in ensuring their networks, where possible, are not used for these purposes. However, the sites exist in a murky legal framework which makes them incredibly difficult to combat.
The federal Government has raised the possibility it could force ISPs to take more responsibility, by issuing warnings to repeat offenders, and potentially blocking the sites from their network.
In New Zealand the government has the ability to fine a person whose internet connection is used to repeatedly download illegal content, and there is speculation this is an option that could be considered in Australia.
Business Insider has contacted the office of Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull for comment.
Some commentators have pointed out that, while illegal, the rate isn't surprising given how popular these programs are, and the delay between their US and Australian screening.
The situation was summed up perfectly by the comedian Louis CK in an interview last year, when he explained that pirating has become acceptable in Australia because the content is not available through any other channel.
But to be fair, Foxtel has made a significant effort to evolve its offering with shows airing hours after they screen in the US, and available on tablets and other mobile devices.
"Here [the United States] weirdos kind of pirate, there's not that many people who pirate here ... But in Australia mums and dads pirate video, because we're not letting them buy it," he said. "We have shows that have been on the air for like three years, and we won't even give them."
You can hear his full interview below. [Contains strong language]
Originally published on Business Insider Australia