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VPN users more likely to steal content, says UK gov survey

People using VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) are more likely to watch, read, and play things via illegal means than those who don’t – that’s according to the latest digital behaviours and attitudes survey commissioned by the IPO (Intellectual Property Office).  

The wide-ranging survey, the ninth of its kind, polled respondents throughout March and April last year on the different types of content they consumed – music, movies, TV shows, software, e-books, live sports, and games – how that content was accessed – streamed, downloaded, physically purchased – and on what devices/platforms it was consumed.

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While dividing results along the lines of gender suggests that men are more likely to illegally access video games, wheras women were more likely to pilfer e-books (NB – out of a sample of 5,014, there were apparently no non-binary people), the data shows that respondents who had used VPNs were more likely to have infringed compared to those who had not, across all content categories. This difference was most pronounced in films, where a 13% jump was recorded, although as you can see from the screengrab below, VPN use accounted for big jumps in non-legal acquisition of TV shows and music as well.

This takeaway might come as no shock at all to anyone fleetingly familiar with what a VPN does. Amongst other things, a VPN can encrypt and anonymise your Internet sessions, potentially making it tricky for copyright holders to link IP addresses associated with your account to activity that infringes copyright.

As VPNs can make it appear as though you’re accessing the Internet from other countries, they’re arguably useful in bypassing regional content restrictions put in place by ISPs (Internet Service Providers), too. Since 2012, the UK’s biggest ISPs have, at the behest of rights holders armed with a Court Order, blocked a growing list of sites associated with copyright infringement, most notably The Pirate Bay.

The IPO says that the purpose of this survey is to seek out what drives people to access content via illegal sources, and what barriers to entry there are. Of the initial survey pool, 50 respondents were picked to answer more detailed questions.

The responses given ranged from availability – if people can’t find a specific TV show on BBC iPlayer or Amazon Prime, they’ll turn to, say, Watch Series – to cost. One anonymous respondent is quoted saying that his ‘fully loaded’ Kodi box “saves [me] a small fortune!”

Related: What is a VPN?

The rise of modern streaming services generally seems to be nudging people away from illegal sources of content, but a minority of users still resent the region-locking of content in the 21st Century. If a popular new show – say, The Mandalorian – isn’t available to watch right now, thanks to contractual entanglements, people just might not wait to pony up for Disney Plus when they can watch it for free right away (albeit illegally).

Again, this should not come as a surprise to anyone – Australia consistently set the world record in terms of Game of Thrones piracy since Season 4, because folks Down Under simply couldn’t wait to see what fans in the U.S. and UK already had.

What this survey means long-term for UK citizens is not immediately clear. We may in the future see information campaigns from the IPO and possibly PIPCU (Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit), targeting both the cautious infringers, who yoink the occasional game or book that they can’t find legally, as well more tech-literate users, who understand how everything works, but simply don’t give a damn about the people who actually make the stuff they enjoy and use getting ripped off.

Let’s hope that whatever campaigns emerge, they’re put together with a bit more thought and care than this one.

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