Banning their Jolly Roger will not stop the internet pirates
By Joe Adams
A recent court ruling has ordered five of Britain’s largest Internet Service Providers to block access to the thepiratebay.org, the web’s largest (with links to over four million files) and, in their own words, “most resilient” filesharing site. Following on from the successful closures of Megaupload and other filehosting sites, ironically at a time when the technology industry is pushing consumers away from locally stored files in favour of online storage on “the cloud”, this represents the latest feather in the music industry’s anti-piracy cap.
However, as is often the case in government action relating to the internet, the closure of such sites ignores the fundamental nature of those who pirate: innovation and replication. The idea of blocking thepiratebay ignores the problem that is merely the most popular website of its kind, rather than the only one. Consider attempting to ban smoking by preventing sales of Marlboro, or banning alcohol by blocking the sale of Fosters.
Replacement websites already exist, and more will spring up to fill the gap in the market – a simple principle of economics, but given the current financial situation one might expect such a lack of understanding from those in charge. Furthermore, thepiratebay, unlike megaupload, is not a source of pirate files itself, but merely a glorified search engine for torrents. Torrents allow an infinite number of individual users to automatically download the file from each other. Thus, while closing megaupload removes access to the pirated files uploaded to their servers, thepiratebay can be replaced with another search engine. A simple Google search for a torrent of the popular new film “The Avengers” (not yet on DVD, and therefore doubly piratical) provides dozens of links: thepiratebay is only the fifth torrent search engine to come up.
Perhaps a limited number of people will be put off by the block, and be unable to find a replacement website. However, those who pirate online tend to be the most competent users of technology, and the rapid spread of information online will quickly educate those who are not. If university students can easily evade the so-called “Great Firewall of China”, as was demonstrated to me on an exchange trip last year, it becomes apparent how simple it will be to avoid a single website being blocked in the UK.
The argument can and has been made that some progress, however ineffectual, is better than no progress at all; the same reasoning applies to the recent Kony 2012 viral campaign. Whatever the video and accompanying campaign’s numerous shortcomings and factual inaccuracies, it raised awareness of the problems in the region. But ineffective progress that wastes taxpayers’ money and government effort should be diverted elsewhere: to solving the cause, not the symptoms, of the disease. After all, one does not eliminate real pirates by preventing them from flying the Jolly Roger.
The cause of the disease is often touted as being one of entitlement: people (and especially young people, who are inevitably blamed for the majority of piracy) expect everything for free. While this makes great right-wing tabloid press, as it can be linked to “benefit culture”, it oversimplifies the problem. The real issue is the growth of the free sector of the internet. Services like YouTube, Spotify, iPlayer and Wikipedia all represent vast sources of information and entertainment. In the pre- and early internet age, these services cost money. Music had to be bought in shops, films paid for at the cinema. The idea can be seen in communication as well: emails are free while letters are not, Skype, Facebook and Twitter services cost nothing, while telephone calls are, for some reason, more expensive within the UK than to far-flung bits of the globe.
This free, ad-supported sector of the internet is supposed to be the factor preventing piracy, but if anything it is unwittingly encouraging it. The internet, of course, is not free: a monthly or yearly fee must be paid for home access. The mindset thus develops: the internet has been paid for, everything on it is should be free. This argument, of course, falls flat in the real world, as there are consequences for stealing: to quote the satire of the famous advertising campaign “You wouldn’t download a car” (which, naturally, people would if they could). People refrain from stealing cars as it is difficult and dangerous; online, there is almost zero accountability.
What is needed, then, is warning and punishment of individuals, not a half-hearted attempt at removing the tools of the trade. A letter or email threatening arrest for a repeat offence of those caught downloading files illegally is the sort of deterrent needed. Unfortunately, the sharing of internet connections makes this relatively unenforceable.
A better option, therefore, is to follow the Google and Facebook model of providing quality services for free, supported by adverts. But this needs to be extended to the two main areas of piracy: music and film. Spotify cannot compete with the iPod as it is fixed in the home, so where is the portable Spotify player? Netflix and Lovefilm provide film streaming on the cheap, but where are the free versions with advert breaks that would create a realistic challenge to TV and cinema? We are only half-way to a solution, and the government is on a wild goose chase. The internet needs to be truly free to stop piracy: commercial advertising, which could be removed at a price, is the only way to destroy the piratical mindset by rendering it completely pointless.