Monday, January 31, 2011

Over 20% of Bandwidth Used for Digital Piracy-- Are You Surprised?

I'm not surprised, and I would bet that most rural ISPs aren't too shocked by that figure either. People love free stuff, and with the Internet it can be really tempting to illegally download a popular movie that hasn't come out on DVD yet or a digital copy of your favorite CD. This is probably not new information to anyone, I would imagine. Many people might feel like digital piracy is a victimless crime--nobody gets hurt and the content creator won't miss that half a cent of income from the song download anyway (presumably). Many people also probably never expect to get caught for downloading something that legally only costs a couple of dollars, and they also don't expect the punishment to be more than a slap on the wrist. I think of digital piracy just like I think of shoplifting (because they are essentially the same)--if you want it bad enough, just pay for it--and if you can't pay for it then either save the money or move on. Simple. Someone worked hard to create that content, and that someone deserves full compensation in return, I don't care if it is a starving artist or a multi-platinum songwriter. This is capitalism and human decency at its most primitive, yet we currently live in a world where over 20% of all Internet traffic is pirated content, digital theft, copyright violations, etc.

Today I attended a conference entitled:"How Much Bandwidth Is Used For Online Piracy?" hosted by the Information Technology & Information Foundation (ITIF). I knew the answer to this question was going to be "a lot of bandwidth" and the solution to this problem would not be straightforward or easy. Actually, there aren't any real comprehensive and totally effective solutions yet. Anyways, an expert on the subject reported that approximately 23.8% of global Internet traffic is infringing on a copyright, and the infamous BitTorrent is responsible for about half of this illegal traffic. In the U.S., the total figure is slightly lower than the global percentage, but at 17% it is still obviously a huge problem--that accounts for a massive amount of bandwidth. In the U.S. alone, the economic impact of digital piracy and copyright theft is over $20 billion annually, but it is the impact on networks--small ISPs in particular--that really concerns me. The easy nature of piracy combined with lack of consumer knowledge about what constitutes legal vs. illegal downloads is a recipe for disaster for ISPs. Furthermore, an ISP that attempts to block traffic or use deep packet inspection to detect and prevent peer-to-peer (P2P) or and other services that support digital theft can start to look like a glaring Net Neutrality violation, thanks to those "wonderful" (= NOT) new rules dictating how ISPs should behave in the Internet ecosystem. It actually brings up an ironic meaning to the purpose of the Net Neutrality rules--to keep the Internet "free and open." Yes, the Internet will be free and open--for anyone to take whatever they want for free, legal or not! One presenter at the conference said that it is often harder to find legal content than illegal content on major search engines because the legitimate sites are buried under a dozen illegitimate sites. This is quite similar to the correlated and horrendous crime of counterfeit merchandise--search for a designer label on eBay and chances are most of the search results will be for fake items that come from slave labor and organized crime. Digital theft of songs and movies might not have such obvious connections to traditional criminal activity, but there are strong associations between digital theft and online identity theft, viruses, malware, etc. There are plenty of legal options for acquiring digital content on the infinite Internet universe, and it should not take extra effort for consumers to locate and acquire it.

What does this mean for rural ISP's, and more importantly what can rural ISP's actually do to detect, prevent and stop digital piracy from hogging their precious bandwidth? Clearly, it means that a great deal of bandwidth is being used for digital theft--again, no surprises here. This reduces the amount of bandwidth available for home businesses, schools, medical centers, and other rural ISP customers. As for what can be done about the problem, there needs to be a balanced and comprehensive solution that involves enforcement, consumer education, and new business models for legal online content. Basically everyone in the Internet ecosystem needs to play a role in reducing digital piracy--I highly doubt it will ever be eliminated entirely. I would be wary of utilizing any deep packet inspection or technologies that restrict or block P2P and illegal file streaming so not to be slapped with a fine for violating Net Neutrality. Rural ISP's could provide some type of consumer education to help steer the traffic away from illegal downloads, but it is ultimately up to the end user to make the right decision. The government has to be careful not to restrict free speech in any legislation aimed at reducing online piracy, and the idea of enforcement mechanisms aimed at all Internet traffic at all times is actually pretty creepy. I think we are definitely at a crossroads right now where it is time for lawmakers to make some significant decisions about digital piracy, and ISP's should have the freedom to do what needs to be done in order to protect their bandwidth for legitimate, paying customers.

I would be really interested in hearing about any solutions that rural ISP's use to detect or prevent digital piracy, if these solutions are effective, and what the "perfect" solution might be.

If you are interested, here are some of the materials from today's ITIF conference:

Technical Report: An Estimate of Infringing Use of the Internet, Envisional (January 2011).

"Steal These Policies: Strategies for Reducing Digital Piracy," D. Castro, R. Bennett, S. Andes; ITIF (December 2009).

Hope everyone enjoys the ice and snow this week!
Cassandra Heyne

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