16 June 2009

Off topic: we're all pirates in this war

Nothing to do with WoW or shadow priests, just wanted to share this interesting analysis of some recent anti-piracy hype from Ben Goldacre. Ben, for those who don't know, deconstructs media misreporting of science issues on his brilliant Bad Science blog, as well as in the Guardian column of the same name. In a world of vapid, pop-tart celebrities and publicity vampires, Ben is a rare beacon of integrity and talent, one of only two living people to make my last supper guest list (Cher's the other).

A recent report by a UK government agency claimed seven million Britons were depriving the economy of £12 billion a year through illegal file sharing and the papers were content to repeat the number parrot-fashion, without any understanding of where it came from or what it actually means.

This is shamelessly lazy reporting. Does anyone really think those people would be spending over £1,700 a year if it wasn't for the intranet? And that's if you take the numbers at face value, without questioning how the agency priced those goods to start with. The actual research is a whole other can of worms.

This is a recurring theme in Bad Science — how press releases manipulate the facts and journalists blindly cut and paste the press releases with predictably piss-poor results. It probably doesn't help that most of these papers are owned by powerful organisations with deep-rooted commercial interests, but you also have to ask how interested the editors are in their own profession.

This is a much more complicated debate than the key protagonists either side would like you to believe. File sharing is hardly morally pure, but nor is it always the crime of the century. There is a huge gulf between the student who downloads last week's Lost because they were cramming for a final when it aired and the self-employed businessman who gets all his business software from bittorrent. Extreme examples of course, but some people on either side of this debate would lump them both into their self-serving camps.

With governments taking an increasing interest in this area, we're going to be bombarded with a lot more of this fluff in the coming months, possibly years. The only way I know of navigating the hyperbole and propaganda is to follow Ben's example and approach the issue with a modicum of scientific aptitude.

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