The government's dizzying statistic that over seven million Brits are involved in online piracy comes from dubious research commissioned by the music industry itself.
When the UK government advisory body, the Strategic Advisory Board for Intellectual Property, released an 85-page report in May pronouncing billions of pounds worth of economic losses and thousands of jobs lost annually due to illegal downloads, its claim of more than seven million freeloaders residing in Britain made headlines.
But the BBC Radio 4 show More or Less has investigated the figure and uncovered not only its rather questionable origin, but the massive statistical assumptions used to arrive at seven million.
The Advisory Board said it commissioned its digital piracy research from a team of academics at University College London called CIBER, which cited the 7 million figure as originating from a paper published by Forrester Research.
But when More or Less got a copy of the Forrester paper cited in the study, they discovered the 7 million figure was never actually mentioned. So they contacted one of the Forrester paper's authors, Mark Mulligan, who explained the number actually came from a separate report he had written for the Forrester subsidiary, Jupiter Research. A paper that was privately commissioned by the British recording industry trade association, BPI.
A government advisory body quoting figures paid for by a trade association that's actively lobbying for a crackdown on file-sharers isn't the worst of it either.
According to More or Less, the 7 million figure was actually rounded up from 6.7 million. The 6.7 million came from a 2008 survey of a mere 1,176 households connected to the internet. For the survey, 11.6 per cent of respondents (136 people) said they had used file-sharing software. The 11.6 per cent figure was then adjusted upwards to 16.3 per cent to reflect the assumption that more people wouldn't admit to file sharing. (Mulligan told the show that the adjustment wasn't pulled out of thin air, but based on unspecified evidence).
The BPI-sponsored research also went under the assumption that there were 40 million people online in the UK in 2008 — a figure much higher than the Office of National Statistics' estimate of 33.9 million that year.
The show notes that even if you accept the statistic that 16.3 per cent of the UK's online population is involved with illegal file-sharing, using the ONS figure would result in only 5.6 million offenders. And if you also don't adjust for under-reporting, it drops down to 3.9 million.
While neither of the numbers are necessarily more accurate than the BPI-sponsored estimates, it does illustrate that a few cooked assumptions here and some generous rounding there makes for a statistic specifically designed to scare. That number can also easily ooze up the ladder directly into the government's ear.
UK-based readers can listen to the program on the iPlayer here. ®