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Mass Piracy Website Blocks by UK ISPs Fuel Legal Alternatives

Thursday, Oct 17th, 2019 (2:34 pm) - Score 4,255

A new study, by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Chapman University, has examined the impact of forcing UK broadband ISPs to block individual piracy websites (via court order) and discovered that it caused a decrease in overall piracy, as well as a 7 to 12% increase in the use of legal subscription sites.

At present the biggest ISPs (e.g. BT, Sky Broadband, TalkTalk, Virgin Media, Plusnet etc.) can be forced by a court to block websites that are found to heavily facilitate internet copyright infringement, which is underpinned by Section 97A of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act.

Since 2012 well over 100 piracy sites have been blocked as a result of this, including several thousand proxy sites and mirrors. Most of those have been file sharing (P2P / Torrent) and video streaming sites, although we’ve also seen similar action against sites that infringe trademarks (e.g. selling counterfeit goods).

The existing process is very expensive and time consuming for both sides to pursue and implement, although Rights Holders often deem it to be a price worth paying as part of their wider efforts to discourage casual piracy. The latest research paper also appears to support that, albeit with the caveat that you have to block a fair few sites to create a real impact.

The study found that blocking a single site in 2012 caused no increase in the use of legal sites, but instead caused users to increase visits to other unblocked piracy sites and Virtual Private Networks (VPN). However, blocking 19 piracy sites in 2013 and 53 sites in 2014 caused a decrease in piracy and an increase in use of legal subscription sites of 7 to 12%, as well an increase in new paid subscriptions.

NOTE: ISPs tend to impose network-level style blocks (censorship) against such sites and any directly linked mirrors/proxy clones, although these restrictions are easily circumvented by use of VPN, DNS changes or Proxy Servers.

The researchers concluded that the number of channels disrupted – and thus, the strength of the intervention – affected the effectiveness of this type of anti-piracy enforcement. They suggest it is likely that this was due to the “increased search and learning costs” associated with piracy (i.e. the costs incurred when pirate sites are blocked and people have to invest time and effort to find and learn how to use new sites, or choose to use legal sites that cost money).

Rahul Telang, CMUHC Professor of Information Systems, said:

“Our results show that blocking access to popular pirate sites reduced overall piracy and increased consumers’ use of paid legal channels.”

The latest work appears to be an extension of a similar report that was conducted in 2015 (here), albeit examining a larger selection of blocks. The study also has a number of limitations. First, they studied legal consumption of media only through paid legal subscription sites; users may consume media legally in other ways.

Second, the results may underestimate the effect of website blocking on legal consumption. And third, because the study looked at consumer activity for only three months after each wave of blocked channels, it could not determine how long the impacts lasted. The study is also broadly based around identifying the “causal effect” of the blocks by comparing individuals’ pre-post changes (educated guess work).

Nevertheless the results are interesting, although arguably a bigger challenge going forward could be the rapidly increasing fragmentation of legal alternatives (something we warned about in 2016). For example, in video streaming there are various paid platforms from Netflix, NOW TV, Amazon (Prime Video), Disney+, Apple and more, all of which tend to increase in price.

In order to get all of the content you want it may be necessary to subscribe to all of the above, which quickly becomes fairly expensive (more so than a subscription to a linear TV package). As such the biggest threat to legal content is the impact of its own fragmentation, which could push users back toward unlawful solutions. Natural competition makes this one difficult to resolve.

By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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13 Responses
  1. Avatar photo Andy says:

    Fragmentation is the sure way to push people onto piracy sites. I regualarly hear about people at work who are in the middle of watching a tv series and then go online to watch some more, only to find that it has “expired” and is no longer available from their provider. This then pushes them to look for “alternative” ways to watch the rest of the series, most of which are not through the routes that are legal.

  2. Avatar photo beany says:

    ” impact of forcing UK broadband ISPs to block individual piracy websites (via court order) and discovered that it caused a decrease in overall piracy, as well as a 7 to 12% increase in the use of legal subscription sites.”

    I find this hard to believe i would imagine any site blocked that a person was getting content from just means they do a quick google search to find an alternative torrent or download site with their wanted fil, tv or music which is not blocked.

    Even more interesting and i may stigmatise here, but i would had thought any university who conducted and students would be the prime example that would at the very least have the sense to know how to carry on getting their free stuff rather than pay, never mind needing to conduct a survey.

    I wonder who if anyone funding this and more importantly and likely PAID for the desired outcome 😉

    1. Avatar photo New_Londoner says:

      And again, this time in English please (punctuation would help too)!

    2. Avatar photo Name* says:

      Exactly. If I’d like to watch something which is not available in Netflix or Prime Video, then I am running my VPN connection.

    3. Avatar photo beany says:

      “And again, this time in English please (punctuation would help too)!”

      Sorry, corrections are…
      google should be Google.
      fil should be film.
      tv should be capitalised to TV.

      Then again, your “And again” was superfluous. Unless you were trying to be clever and use the word ‘And’ to start a sentence as a conjunction, in that case you should really type something before it in which to conjoin the remark in the first place.

      Only America is where that mistake in your Spell check is acceptable regardless.

      Glad we could help each other.

  3. Avatar photo GucciGang says:

    VPN and mirror sites

  4. Avatar photo ExPirate MaybeFuturePirate says:

    This is why you should research this kind of thing by asking people WHO DID PIRATE AND STOPPED not looking at statistics.

    People stopped pirating because Netflix had just opened in the UK and offered a cheap and easy way to access TV and movies the block did NOTHING the same happened with music (spotify) and PC gaming (steam)

    If people can afford it they will buy it if they can not they will pirate it that is why piracy of movies and TV is going to rise again as we can not afford a monthly sub to every streaming platform going the industry will again shoot itself in the foot by getting greedy.

  5. Avatar photo Mike says:

    Fragmentation without reduced pricing will push people back unofficial sources.

  6. Avatar photo Holdoor says:

    There’s no direct correlation between blocked sites and legal alternatives.

    The fact that Netflix is much more popular now than it was 7 years ago doesn’t reliably relate to blocked sites, at all.

    I’m super surprised that Carnegie Melon would even publish a paper like this.

    Times must be tough over there.

  7. Avatar photo Spurple says:

    Very interesting that this trend happens to coincide with the rise of several competing and relatively affordable legal options.

  8. Avatar photo Mark says:

    Beany: Unless is a conjunction. :oDDD

    1. Avatar photo beany says:

      “Beany: Unless is a conjunction. :oDDD”

      I think you mean…
      “Beany: Unless it is a conjunction. :oDDD”

      Regardless it was not, there was nothing typed before the “And again” and thus there was no conjoining or conjunction to the comment.

    2. Avatar photo Go away says:

      I think what he is now trying to say is your use of the word “Unless” is a conjunction. It was not and the use of it as a subordinating conjunction would had required you placed the Word “Unless” at the beginning of your remark.
      You cannot have any pudding unless you finish your dinner.
      When using as “unless” as a subordinating conjunction you would state
      Unless you finish your dinner, you cannot have any pudding.

      Seeing as you did not use the word “unless” at the beginning of your two statements (a main clause and a dependent or subordinate clause) though it was not a conjunction. Good attempt though.

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