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

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By Barry Collins

Posted on 4 Sep 2009 at 14:54

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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User comments

I wonder will this ever make it to more mainstream news sources than an afternoon radio 4 show?

By Shuflie on 4 Sep 2009

Thanks for sharing :)

I am going to email this to every news outlet in the country.

I want Jeremy Paxman grilling "Mandy" on Newsnight about his dirty weekend in Corfu with David Geffen setting government piracy policy and how the government bases it's piracy figures on industry spin.

By cheysuli on 4 Sep 2009

That was quick

It’s good to know that the target of a 70% reduction has nearly been reached already.

Barry, while it’s true to say that UK-based readers can listen to More or Less, so can the rest of the world. It’s only the TV that’s restricted on iPlayer. It’s even the higher quality Flash player now, after the Beeb left the rest of the world stuck with ropey RealPlayer streams long after the UK moved to Flash.

By pacid on 4 Sep 2009

Puppet on a string

"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."

Why does the phrase "his master's voice" strike a chord?

A case of the tail wagging the dog.

Our politicians are really little more than snappily dressed prostitutes.

By Lacrobat on 5 Sep 2009

I do hope that they sacked the civil servant who told the ministers that this was the figure. It shows that they were sloppy and embarrassed the government. Ministers should get accurate facts not propaganda from the BPI and spout it as fact.

By Amnesia10 on 6 Sep 2009

File Sharing Software?

I'd like to know what EXACTLY was the question they asked those 1,176 connected households, did they ask how many used bit-torrent? or did they ask if the respondent regularly shared files with friends? If we don't know the actually question asked and the context in the survey it was asked in, we can't tell if it's a true reflection of the amount of illegal file sharing going on.

Extrapolating 3.9 million from a sample of ~1000 odd still seems pretty suspect to me.

By pinero50 on 6 Sep 2009

Also available as a podcast/decent quality mp3

You can also get the programme as a podcast or download it as a decent quality mp3 from here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/moreorless/.
Definitely worth subscribing to the podcast in my view, since the programme's always interesting...

By muso_ed on 6 Sep 2009

Filesharing numbers don’t add up

Ben Griffiths did some interesting analysis of the report by SABIP: http://www.techbelly.com/2009/05/30/filesharing-nu
mbers-dont-add-up/

By floehopper on 7 Sep 2009

And were the 136 people legally downloading Linux?

I often use "filesharing" tools to get Linux and Solaris ISO images, with the express consent of the owners.

I wonder how many of the file-sharers actually told the interviewers that they were illegally downloading stolen goods.

--dave

By davecb on 8 Sep 2009

Your headline is more misleading than what the government originally did. The 136 was 11.6% of the responses to a "survey of 1,176 net-connected households". That's a good sample size for a survey.

[pinero50 says "Extrapolating 3.9 million from a sample of ~1000 odd still seems pretty suspect to me." Pinero, I know it seems strange, but that's a basic thing you learn when studying statistics. A sample size on the order of 1,000 gives very accurate results, if picked randomly.]

There were problems, including having an interested party be involved in the research, but a more sensible comparison would be 3.9 million (mentioned at the end of the article) vs 7 million.

Commenters are right to question the wording used in the survey. If it just mentioned file-sharing, all bets are off as to how many people share illegally.

By Sue_VanHattum on 13 Sep 2009

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