07 September 2009

Lies, Damned Lies and Media Industry Numbers

A few months back, I wrote about how some figures quoted in the "Copycats" report produced by University College London's CIBER for the UK governmnent's Strategic Advisory Board for Intellectual Property Policy were based on nothing more than wishful thinking by the media industries. You would have thought that having been caught red-handed once, they might have stuck to the truth. It seems not:

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.

Specifically, we're talking about that emotive "7 million people" that are engaged in allegedly illegal file sharing:

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.

I don't want to focus on the way the government supinely relies on the media industry for its "data", or the fact that the media industry continues to resort to these fabricated figures to justify its insane actions. Instead, I'd like to look at two other aspects.

First, let's give some kudos to the BBC for deciding to investigate these figures. At a time when the BBC is under attack (a) from interested parties like James Murdoch for daring to exist, and from (b) trouble-makers like me over its weak coverage of the computing sector, it's great to see some great reporting from it.

But what I really want to underline here is the own goal scored by the content industries. The more plausible 3.9 million figure mentioned above would have served their purposes admirably: it's quite big, and so is "shocking" enough. By foolishly going for the 7 million figure, the media moguls have dug their own grave.

By quoting that number, they are effectively saying a vast swathe of the UK population is engaged in that activity. And as history teaches us, when such a vast proportion of a nation is doing something that is technically breaking the law, this shows not that these people are bad, but that such a law is self-evidently unjust to that nation.

So, whether we believe it or not, we should use this 7 million figure, and throw it back in the face of the media industries as proof that they are totally alienated from their customers. And based on that, we should invite them either to show that they do indeed care about such people by changing their approach radically, or at least frankly to admit what seems obvious to any dispassionate observer: that they actually hate their customers for revealing them to be liars, bullies, cheats and fools.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.


David Gerard said...

I do wish they hadn't pushed that "only 136" line. It's hard enough to beat into first year statistics students' heads that RESOLUTION depends only on SAMPLE SIZE and does NOT depend on POPULATION SIZE. A sample of 1000-odd will give you +/-10% resolution no matter the population size. That's why political surveys are typically 2000 people no matter the population size, because +/-3% is enough.

Cyberdoyle said...

Saw this link the other day:
File sharing: It’s a lot like speeding http://bit.ly/4ajo5i
bit concerned with the stats in that article... if 7million is 30% of internet users, that means 21 million use, digitalengagement people say 15 million won't use, so where are the rest of the uk population?
not right good at sums, could you check it out? Someone else playing sillysods with stats?

Glyn Moody said...

Indeed. But that's why I like the 7 million number: *anyone* can appreciate this is a serious proportion of the UK's population, especially its online population.

Glyn Moody said...

@cyberdoyle: I think that nicely illustrates the fact that practically everyone is making these figures up as they go along...they're certainly incompatible.