Governance of a City-State
Site-blocking won’t be a panacea for online piracy

The Ministry of Law (MinLaw) announced on April 7, 2014, that it was proposing changes to the Copyright Act. If and when the amendments come to pass in Singapore, websites such as The Pirate Bay, which facilitate the illegal sharing of copyrighted files, may be blocked by Internet service providers (ISPs). At the moment, The Pirate Bay is the most used file-sharing site on the Internet, according to Torrent Freak, a publication dedicated to news on copyright and privacy issues.

Slated to kick in at the end of 2014, the proposed revisions to the law are aimed at better protecting copyright holders. They can apply directly to the courts for an injunction to block user access to certain sites, and if the application is approved, ISPs will be required to comply with the order.

Piracy has been blamed for crippling music sales in Singapore. A Straits Times article on online piracy last month said that in 2009, music sales totalled $29.8 million. Last year, it was $16.4 million. Over the years, famous brand name music retail chains in Singapore, such as Tower Records and Gramophone, have ceased their operations here, attributing this to a decline in sales. According to a survey conducted by Sycamore Research and Marketing and Insight Asia Research Group earlier this year, it is estimated that three in five people illegally download copyrighted content in Singapore.

The proposed changes to legislation will target file-sharing websites that “show a blatant disregard for, and that clearly infringe, copyrights”. Search engines and content-sharing sites, such as Google and YouTube, are deemed to be legitimate.

However, site-blocking by ISPs to prevent illegal file-sharing should not be seen as a panacea for piracy. There are potential negative consequences for consumers, and no guarantee of success in reducing online piracy, as copyright protection is becoming increasingly problematic in the Internet age.

Site-blocking will not deter all

First, the effectiveness of site-blocking to decrease illegal downloads is questionable. ISPs elsewhere in the world have already given up trying.

In January 2014, a Dutch court ruled that the ban placed on The Pirate Bay by ISPs – put in place in 2012 – were to be dropped as they were deemed ineffective. In its verdict, the court said that despite the blockade, the number of illegal downloaders had increased, indicating that a significant number of newcomers to piracy were “not deterred…to start downloading from illegal sources.”

Hardcore pirates are known to circumvent blockades by using proxies or virtual private networks. Mirror sites can also take the place of blocked sites easily. As pirated content is available on multiple channels, ISPs would have to block an innumerable amount of websites in order for the ban to be foolproof. They would have to expend efforts on this, even in instances when copyrighted content does not belong to them.

Second, Zipf ‘s law, also more loosely known as the 80/20 or 90/10 rule, holds. The majority of illegal activity, say, 80 percent of all illegal files transferred, is committed by a minority group, say, 20 percent of the most hardcore pirates. Blocking sites could deter softcore pirates but would fail to make a dent on the total overall amount of trafficking by the most determined file-sharers, who would find multiple ways to download and distribute content.

Flouting net neutrality

Third, allowing ISPs to block specific sites flouts net neutrality – which is a guiding principle that preserves the free and open Internet and ensures everyone has access to all content from all online sources.

Based on this principle, ISPs should not be ordered to prevent paying customers from accessing certain sites. There is also the inherent fear that without net neutrality, innovation cannot occur on the Internet as freely, especially if ISPs have control over access.

This point is based on empirical evidence: With unfettered access to the Internet network infrastructure, online streaming services such as Netflix and YouTube have flourished.

And here’s the irony: In its early days, YouTube had legal tussles over copyright issues with several big content providers, such as Viacom and the English Premier League. YouTube would most likely have floundered if ISPs at that time had decided to block it due to alleged copyright infringement, but fortunately, nothing like that happened.

It is worthy to note that YouTube survived, especially without state laws to clamp down on copyright violators. And now, YouTube is seen as a legitimate entity, with MinLaw saying that it will not be affected by the proposed changes to legislation.

The worst-case scenario for consumers

If ISPs engage in selective site-blocking, a worst-case scenario could develop over time.

Legitimate streaming sites will increasingly become even bigger bandwidth gluttons as consumers migrate to legitimate sites to receive content that they would have to pay for.

ISPs – who can choose to not adhere to net neutrality rules – could in theory, make the case that access to legitimate streaming sites should be limited or should cost consumers more. Content streaming requires a lot of bandwidth and already, ISPs and cable companies in the United States are arguing that they should be paid more than they are now to provide bandwidth.

In Singapore, our ISPs could feel incentivised to limit access to legitimate streaming sites as they are also cable television operators who have an interest in keeping eyeballs glued to their paid cable services. If they decide to levy a toll on these sites to transmit data, consumers would invariably have to bear the cost, something they would be sore about.

Earlier this year, the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper reported that SingTel chief executive Chua Sock Koong, in remarks made at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, suggested that regulators in Australia should allow telcos to detect and charge over-the-top (OTT) players when their services are being provided over the telco’s network. OTT companies provide services like text messaging and video or voice calls. Ms Chua added that the solution was not to simply levy companies like WhatsApp but to become their partners. The report upset consumers here and Singtel had to clarify that it did not plan to charge customers in Singapore separately for use of OTT services.

What about the fans?

The Pirate Bay contravenes copyright laws in many countries, but its continued popularity is instructive. Peer-to-peer file-sharing continues to flourish not only because it is free. It provides convenience by matching supply to demand at the point of requirement, rather than relying on a content distributor or intermediary, such as record labels. It is also seen as a lesser evil. While downloading a soft copy of a file would allow the user to access it for good, streaming limits access to the content, as it is dependent on Internet connection speeds and in some cases, is restricted by a maximum number of log-ins.

While the proposed amendments to the Copyright Act will protect copyright holders, it is worthwhile to ask: what about the consumer? Music fans who favour peer-to-peer file-sharing networks over purchasing records have long argued that while music should not be free, neither should it be so expensive. Restricting access to content using legal or technological means ultimately alienates the very fans that the content is appealing to.

It is unfortunate that global efforts to protect copyright tend to disenfranchise fans as well. It would be better if the campaign, for instance, focused on seeking more transparency in how record labels pay artists. The case can then be made that greater consumption of paid content will benefit artists and empower them to create more. We could also look at how to make content affordable enough for consumers to purchase without qualms and yet profitable enough to continue to incentivise content creation.

Belmont Lay is the editor of He writes on socio-political issues in Singapore. He has also written articles for Yahoo! News Singapore and The Verge.

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