This Anti-Piracy Scare Campaign Is Bullshit

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In August, Creative Content Australia (CCA) launched their ‘Price of Piracy’ campaign, which aims to shed light on the issue of using torrent and streaming websites to illegally access content. Specifically, it wants to highlight the inherent risk users put themselves in when accessing these sites.

This campaign is the biggest anti-piracy push in Australia's history - but are scare campaigns really the right way to prevent people from downloading? And how do the facts and figures actually stack up?

A black and white video starring famed Australian actor Bryan Brown tops the Price of Piracy website. In the video, Brown walks out from the darkness into a spotlight and proclaims “I need to talk to you about illegal downloading, because the game has changed.”

He discusses the fact that many of the major piracy websites are now blocked in Australia and then explains that there are other sites you could use, with a caveat. “Hell of a risk,” he explains, “could end up with viruses, spyware, stolen credit card details, even identity theft. Seems like a high price to pay after all.”

So what exactly links these kinds of problems with piracy websites?

The Links Between Piracy Sites And Malware

“The link between pirate sites and malware” - which itself links to studies - is prominently displayed on the Price of Piracy website. It redirects to a PDF document called 'Research Links' which includes the following statement:

Below are links to published studies / academic papers on the use of malware and other potentially dangerous programs that proliferate on infringing sites, with a brief summary of the scope of the research paper. The studies prove that, in addition to professionals in the creative industries, end users are also victims of the massive and growing cybercrime industry.

The most interesting aspect of this is the studies that CCA link to in this document. One study is funded and performed by the ‘Association of Internet Security Professionals’ and another was performed in conjunction with ‘RiskIQ’. These are companies that have a lot of skin in the internet security game – and while that doesn’t discount the validity of the studies being performed, it does mean that there may be a publication bias that leans toward improving your computer's security.

Yet, another study links to a report about Remote Access Trojans or RATs. In itself it is not a study of the links between piracy sites and malware, but instead refers to the kinds of malicious software that you might find online. The one link it does provide to previous research regarding piracy sites and malware is buried within the document and links to a study by Paul Watters called “A Systematic Approach To Measuring Advertising Transparency Online: An Australian Case Study.”

You may be able to discern from its title alone that Watters study is more focused on the online advertising landscape. It will come as no surprise to you, I’m sure, that the advertisements on piracy sites (which you are under no obligation to click on) may contain malware. Of course, if this is shocking news to you, then the CCA documents are well worth investing some time in.

There is nothing wrong with educating the public about the threat to their security that may be posed if you visit some of the "darker" parts of the web, but to use that threat as a campaign against piracy just shows a lack of understanding.

Are Australians Becoming Worse Pirates?

Interestingly, research conducted by CCA has shown that piracy has decreased in adults aged 18-64, from 29 per cent to 21 per cent, in the last three years. This is a significant drop off, that coincides with the release of affordable streaming services, like Netflix, Stan and Foxtel Now, which has given consumers the ability to readily access content, legally. In fact, CCA even report that legal alternatives are the major reason that consumers are pirating content less often – because the content is available online.

If you look at the data, the frequency with which pirates are downloading or illegally streaming TV shows significantly dropped since 2015, the pre-Netflix-era (down from 15% in 2015 to 12% in 2016). Curiously, movies did not see a significant drop off. One might infer that the access to movies in Australia is still lacking behind the US - things like the Lego Batman and John Wick 2 saga demonstrate that when content isn't delivered in a reasonable time frame, people are likely to go and pirate that content (you can see in the Gizmodo comments that many people did do just that!).

It is true that the attitude towards pirating is changing, of the total 1010 survey respondents, 73 per cent agreed that downloading content is stealing or theft, the highest percentage recorded by the CCA yet. Of course, as legal methods become more and more available and are seen as more readily accessible by the general public, it is to be expected that the attitude towards pirating will change.

Peter Tonagh, CEO of Foxtel commented on the campaign's site by saying:

Foxtel supports this campaign because we believe that a combination of education, fast and affordable access to content and effective regulation are essential to protect Australia’s creative industries. The good news is that this approach appears to be working. In 2016 Australia was the number one country for piracy of Game of Thrones. This year following successful site blocking cases and heavy publicity for Foxtel Now, reports suggest that Australia did not make the top ten for piracy of the first episode of season 7.

Until Foxtel’s rebrand earlier this year as Foxtel Now, which brought HD quality to Foxtel’s streaming service at an affordable price, Australians were pirating Game of Thrones more than anyone in the world. Once this change was made (and perhaps owing to the fact that Foxtel Now offers a free trial period), we didn’t even rank in the Top 10 for piracy of the biggest TV show on earth.

So it appears that Australians are pirating less than ever. Why the scare campaign?

Are Scare Tactics The Right Way To Curb Piracy?

Campaigning to prevent piracy because you might get a virus is like telling people not to step outside when its raining because they might get wet. Pirates aren't your everyday internet user - some are, sure - but to illegally download content or to find a streaming website with a viable stream, you have to have some tech savvy. The idea that you might get a virus from the internet is not a foreign concept to pirates, it's not something they've never heard about before. So, if the campaign isn't marketed towards the pirates, why does it exist in the first place?

Is it a scare tactic to prevent future pirates from illegal downloads? Is it to prevent the younger generation - the 12-17 year olds who seem to be pirating in similar amounts as they were in 2013 - from accessing pirated content?

It's hard to say. Again, educating the public about the issues surrounding piracy is admirable, but is the best way to do this by running a campaign that suggests these sites are harmful to the consumer? It just doesn't land - especially when you consider that the research commissioned by CCA demonstrates that only one in ten people have begun pirating less because of the potential threat that malicious software poses.

If you really want to prevent your computer from getting viruses or your identity from being stolen, then you will use methods to avoid those things from happening. When you step outside and it's raining, you use an umbrella to prevent yourself from getting drenched. It's the same thing online. When you 'surf the web', you make sure that you have adequate protections in place. If you do surf the web and if you use piracy sites, you can still avoid malware if you practice the right techniques. A digital umbrella will stop your computer from being drenched in harmful software.

But curbing the rate of piracy in Australia isn't just relying on an anti-piracy campaign. Recently, the Federal Court has been ordering ISPs to block more and more piracy websites. Does this have an influence on pirating behaviours?

Does Site Blocking Help Prevent Piracy?

The Price of Piracy campaign also provides research on the effects of site blocking on piracy. The study they link to, available here, was conducted by Carnegie Mellon University's Initiative for Digital Entertainment Analytics. The research demonstrated that 'blocking The Pirate Bay only caused a small reduction in total piracy - instead, consumers seemed to turn to other piracy sites or Virtual Private Networks that allowed them to circumvent the block."

This is a phenomenon that we saw in Australia when The Pirate Bay was blocked and it's true that dedicated pirates will still find ways to circumvent the blocks. Especially in Australia, where DNS-level blocking of sites takes place, it seems remarkably easy to access sites that have been blocked.

However, the research did show that by blocking 19 major piracy sites in the UK in 2013, that total piracy decreased and there was a modest increase in the use of legal services, like Netflix. While the study was funded by the Motion Picture Association of America, a company that clearly benefits from reduced piracy, the outcomes of the study are telling. It's also important to note that the study was conducted during a time when legal services were becoming more readily available, essentially 'muddying' the data.

Ultimately, if pirates want to continue to download illegal content and are willing to circumvent site blocks, then won't they also be looking for ways to avoid malware?

Using Piracy Sites Is My Choice, How Can I Avoid Malware?

The same way that you avoid malware from anywhere else. You have to be smart.

If you’re visiting sites that offer illegal download of copyrighted content, then you are putting yourself at risk – there’s no doubt about that. But if you practice safe-browsing techniques, don’t click on advertisements or pop-ups, you go a long way to preventing infection. Most browsers these days are constantly updating themselves to plug security loopholes, so you should always make sure that your software is up-to-date.

Do you need anti-virus software? It’s debatable. Most operating systems and browsers are well equipped to deal with common threats and, for instance, Windows 10 boasts one of the more robust built-in security setups that Microsoft have ever put into their OS. Funnily enough, pirates are surprisingly altruistic. With torrent files that contain malware or spyware, you’ll often find that other users have commented on the file explaining that it’s a virus or that it isn’t what it says it is. In that way, it’s worth seeing what others think of certain files because those that are hardly being downloaded at all are likely to contain malicious software, whereas the torrents with hundreds of users downloading and uploading are probably real.

It’s kind of like a ‘herd immunity’ for the internet.

Obviously don’t click on something that says Space Jam 2. That movie doesn’t exist, yet, though we sorely hope it will one day.

Is all this to say that you should pirate content or that pirating content is okay? Absolutely not.

Piracy is theft - that much is obvious. Will running a campaign based on internet security curb piracy? I don't think so. But, as Bryan Brown says at the end of the campaign’s header video:

“Good luck.”