How Website Blocking Is Curbing Digital Piracy Without “Breaking the Internet”

Five years after the furor over the Stop Online Piracy Act, empirical evidence shows blocking piracy sites is effective and does no harm. This should serve as an object lesson for policymakers to take alarmist rhetoric with a grain of salt.

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Many countries ask domestic Internet service providers (ISPs) to block access to websites engaged in illegal activities—such as those facilitating cybercrime, child pornography, or terrorism—because this is one of the few means available to respond to illegal materials hosted abroad. However, when it comes to addressing other legitimate public policy objectives, such as curbing digital piracy, some of these same countries are reluctant to ask ISPs to block websites dedicated to distributing illegal copies of movies, music, and other copyright-protected works. As a result, online piracy continues unabated. But where countries are using website blocking to fight digital piracy, the record shows it has been effective in driving users from illegal to legal sources of copyrighted material online.  

This was a key conclusion of a recent study in which Carnegie Mellon University examined the real-world impact of website blocking in the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, the results of this study will likely face many familiar misperceptions about website blocking: that such policy tools should not apply to the Internet, that it will be ineffective, that it is a form of censorship, that it will be expensive for ISPs, and that it will be abused by content rights holders. However, these objections are often based on a very skewed view of the Internet, one that does not recognize the need to extend laws that exist in the offline world to the online one. The report highlights why policymakers in future debates around Internet-related policy, including efforts to fight digital piracy, should be more skeptical of such hysterical and unsubstantiated criticism.

Website blocking is not antithetical to a free and open Internet. Even the most vocal supporters of Internet freedom recognize that it is legitimate to remove or limit access to some materials online, such as sites that facilitate child pornography. At the same time, some governments can and do cast too wide a net against Internet content, taking down or limiting access that is not illegal, but only upsetting to those in power. The key issue about Internet freedom, therefore, is not whether the Internet is and should be completely free or whether governments should have unlimited censorship authority, but rather where the appropriate lines should be drawn, how they are drawn, and how they are implemented. 

Defending the open Internet globally should be a key task of governments, particularly democratically elected ones. Advocating limits on accessing illegal content online does not violate open Internet principles, nor does it limit the legitimacy of governments pushing for a more open and free global Internet. And, in particular, given the pervasiveness of digital piracy throughout the world—action that is by definition illegal, not to mention unethical—governments can and should do more to limit access to this content.

In the vitriolic debates over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the United States, many opponents of taking action to limit access to foreign websites dedicated to piracy argued that website blocking would “break the Internet,” although they never satisfactorily explained how this breakage would occur or why the Internet was not already broken, since some site blocking already existed before the SOPA debate. Nonetheless, no policymaker wanted to be accused of being responsible for breaking the Internet. Five years later, we have evidence to evaluate. Meanwhile, 25 nations have enacted policies and regulations regarding website blocking to find a better balance between preserving the benefits of a free and open Internet and efforts to stop crimes such as digital piracy. And the Internet still works just fine in these nations. 

This report analyzes the prevalence, persistence, types, and cost of digital piracy, which the vast majority of academic literature shows harms content creators. It then analyzes website blocking—how it works, different blocking mechanisms, the costs of website blocking, and the types of websites currently being targeted by the wide range of countries that allow website blocking. The report then rebuts a number of common criticisms of website blocking.