Court-enforced online roadblocks, demanded by movie studios, appear to be stopping only half of Australia's would-be pirates from reaching The Pirate Bay; even fewer once you allow for Aussies hiding behind a virtual private network, or VPN.
Australian internet service providers have blocked a range of piracy websites since December 2016, including The Pirate Bay and SolarMovie, after the Federal Court enforced site-blocking laws at the behest of a consortium of copyright holders headed by Village Roadshow.
Since then visits from Australia to these blocked sites have fallen by 53 per cent, according to the Australian Site-Blocking Efficacy Report from UK-based intellectual property research company Incopro.
The report "offers proof to all the naysayers who decried site-blocking," Creative Content Australia executive director Lori Flekser tells Fairfax Media.
Flekser, responsible for the ongoing 'Price of Piracy' awareness campaign, views halving the traffic to these piracy sites as a win for Australian copyright holders, rather than dwelling on the fact that half of all would-be pirates still slip past the blocks. There are still hundreds of thousands of visits to piracy sites each month, not counting those behind VPNs.
"We believe that the research shows that site-blocking is effective, VPNs and all the other ways that people mask their activities notwithstanding, as there is clearly a move away from those pirate sites," Flekser says, as the Federal government launches an inquiry into the effectiveness of site-blocking.
"I suspect that site-blocking would not exist in 42 countries around the world if it were totally ineffective."
The figures look worse for copyright holders when you do allow for the fact that 20 per cent of Australia's pirates use a VPN to hide their tracks when pirating content, according to Creative Content Australia's own research.
Incopro's figures rely on reports from web traffic analytics company Alexa, which attempts to trace the origin of website visitors. The report concedes that Alexa's figures can not account for Australians who have masked their location using a VPN, bypassing site-blocking and appearing to be located in another country.
Those Australians which do show up in local piracy figures are mostly relying on proxy sites which bypass site-blocks without masking the visitor's true location. The vast majority of this traffic is destined for The Pirate Bay, Flekser says, with Creative Content Australia calling on search giants like Google to do more to discourage the use of proxy sites.
While Flekser downplays the use of VPNs by Australian pirates, a 2015 study found that 16 per cent of Aussies had used a VPN. This was amid copyright holders pursuing Australian pirates who downloaded the movie Dallas Buyers Club.
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VPN provider NordVPN says its Australian subscriber numbers doubled in 2016, and then doubled again in 2017. Along with efforts to mask piracy, a NordVPN spokesperson says the interest has been driven by privacy concerns over the introduction of Australia's mandatory metadata retention scheme and talk of forcing communication providers to provide law enforcement access to encrypted messages.
Regardless, Flekser says VPN usage has not grown considerably in Australia.
"There seems to have been a spike in 2015, which may well have had something to do with the Dallas Buyers Club, but it's very hard to actually know because once they've got a VPN they mask not only their identity but also their location," she says.
"But if Google Analytics is any indication then it's not a massive spike, and if our annual research is to be believed and is consistent then there doesn't seem to be a big spike in the use of VPNs."
Rather than accessing file-sharing sites like The Pirate Bay, Flekser says the number one reason Australians search on Google for VPNs is to bypass geo-blocking and access the US Netflix library, paying for content in US dollars.
These Australians are paying for content which is available for free via piracy websites, but Flekser disputes claims by Google and others that piracy is primarily an issue of "availability and pricing".
"Our research has told us pretty consistently, for many years now, the key reason that people pirate is because it's free," Flekser says, "and it's incredibly hard for any business model to compete with free."
"We also need to help people understand that there are ways that they can legitimately consume content, some of them may involve paying, some of them may involve this bizarre concept called waiting."