How 136 file sharers became 7 million

Can we trust official governmental figures on file sharing? According to an enquiry by the BBC, the answer to this question is no. A recent governmental report puts the number of UK file sharers at the hefty figure of 7 million, however, a closer examination into this figure by the BBC Radio 4 Show 'More or Less' has uncovered the reality behind this figure. The show, aired on Friday, reveals that the figure comes from questionable research commissioned by the music industry.

The Strategic Advisory Board for Intellectual Property, who published this recent report for the government, obtained the figures from a team of academics at the University College London, who, in turn, pulled this figure from a paper released by Forrester Research. The BBC team tracked down the relevant paper, but could find no mention of the 7 million figure, and so went on to contact the author of the report, Mark Mulligan.

Mr. Mulligan claimed the number quoted in the report was taken from research he published regarding music industry losses, which was commissioned by the British Phonographic Industry, the trade association for the British record industry.

Further investigation revealed that this figure was based on some questionable assumptions and wild approximations. Firstly, this number was rounded up from a figure of 6.7 million, taken from a 2008 survey into UK internet usage. This questionnaire was responded to by 1176 UK households with an internet connection, of which just 11.6% admitted to having used file-sharing software. This equates to only 136 people.

From this figure of 11.6%, an adjustment was made upwards to 16.3% "to reflect the assumption that fewer people admit to file sharing than actually do it." The author of the report told the BBC that this change was made based on evidence, but declined to inform the team of the source of his information used here.

From this figure, a final calculation was made, to scale up to the total number of people in the UK with web access. However, yet another incorrect figure was used, with the assumption that there were 40 million internet subscribers in the UK, the figure of 7 million file sharers was generated. The true figure, according to the UK Office of National Statistics is closer to 33.9 million.

Once all the assumptions and adjustments are removed from the calculations, a more believable statistic of 3.9 million users of illegal file sharing networks is found. This is just over half of the figure published by the government. With this in mind, can we really trust the figures we find online regarding the size of the file sharing problem?

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