How UK Government spun 136 people into 7m illegal file sharers

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The BBC exposes how the Government is relying on highly questionable, music industry figures to justify its clampdown on illegal file sharing

The British Government's official figures on the level of illegal file sharing in the UK come from questionable research commissioned by the music industry, the BBC has revealed.

The Radio 4 show More or Less - which is devoted to the "often abused but ever ubiquitous world of numbers" - decided to examine the Government's claim that 7m people in Britain are engaged in illegal file sharing.

The 7m figure comes from the Strategic Advisory Board for Intellectual Property, a Government advisory body.

As if the Government taking official statistics directly from partisan sources wasn't bad enough, the BBC reporter Oliver Hawkins also found that the figures were based on some highly questionable assumptions

The Advisory Board claimed it commissioned the research from a team of academics at University College London, who it transpires got the 7m figure from a paper published by Forrester Research.

The More or Less team hunted down the relevant Forrester paper, but could find no mention of the 7m figure, so they contacted the report's author Mark Mulligan.

Mulligan claimed the figure actually came from a report he wrote about music industry losses for Forrester subsidiary Jupiter Research. That report was privately commissioned by none other than the music trade body, the BPI.

Fudged figures

As if the Government taking official statistics directly from partisan sources wasn't bad enough, the BBC reporter Oliver Hawkins also found that the figures were based on some highly questionable assumptions.

The 7m figure had actually been rounded up from an actual figure of 6.7m. That 6.7m was gleaned from a 2008 survey of 1,176 net-connected households, 11.6% of which admitted to having used file-sharing software - in other words, only 136 people.

It gets worse. That 11.6% of respondents who admitted to file sharing was adjusted upwards to 16.3% "to reflect the assumption that fewer people admit to file sharing than actually do it." The report's author told the BBC that the adjustment "wasn't just pulled out of thin air" but based on unspecified evidence.

The 6.7m figure was then calculated based on the estimated number of people with internet access in the UK. However, Jupiter research was working on the assumption that there were 40m people online in the UK in 2008, whereas the Government's own Office of National Statistics claimed there were only 33.9m people online during that year.

If the BPI-commissioned Jupiter research had used the Government's online population figures, the total number of file sharers would be 5.6m. If the researchers hadn't adjusted their figures upwards, the total number of file sharers would be only 3.9m - or just over half the figure being bandied about by the Government.

UK-based readers can listen to More or Less on the BBC iPlayer here

(Thanks to David Johnson for the tip-off)

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