One of the arguments that Stop Online Piracy Act advocates have made fairly repeatedly is that consumers don’t know which downloads are legitimate and which aren’t, especially when sites offering material outside of legal channels charge fees. On an instinctive level, I’ve gone back and forth about how I’ve felt about that claim. There’s just such a difference between the production values on legitimate outlets like Hulu and Amazon and something like, say, EZTVStream, which just looks terrible and fake, that it’s hard for me to believe someone would fall for it. But given the level of knowledge about how the internet works in, say, Congress, there’s probably some truth to the idea that innocent people are lead astray.
There’s some interesting data out from the American Academy about file-sharing practices that might provide a useful jumping-off point for further digging in to this kind of argument, and separating out intentional and accidental piracy. Apparently, about 15 percent of people who use file-sharing software hide their IP addresses while they’re doing it (25 percent of sharers between 18 and 24, and 5 percent of sharers older than 44), which suggests they’re aware they’re doing something that is not legal. TorrentFreak reports that an IP address scrambler has seen its business go up recently, and attributes that growth to the introduction of and debate over SOPA. Those people are probably not ending up the wrong place by mistake, and SOPA may harden their stance and practices — and it’s bad news for anti-piracy advocates that younger folks are hiding their IP addresses more than their older counterparts. That generational trend is in the wrong direction.
So it’s probably worth figuring out in granular detail what’s happening with that other 85 percent of filesharers and what makes them change their behavior. Do they stop going to filesharing sites when they learn about services like Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Prime? Do they stop going to sites that offer pirated material when they’re taught to recognize them? The creative industry is going to need two strategies, one for people who are accessing their product outside of legal channels on purpose, and one for people who are doing it by accident or out of ignorance.