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Why the Poorest Countries Torrent the Biggest Files

It's a question of access to streaming services, researchers say.
October 6, 2014, 7:00pm

The relative wealth or poverty of the country you live in may influence what kinds of media you choose to download on the internet, new research suggests.

According to a study published today in the  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, movies and TV shows are the media of choice for BitTorrent pirates in poor nations with bad internet infrastructure, while small music files are more popular in economically developed countries whose citizens enjoy better connections.

One might expect that users in countries with better internet infrastructure would use it to download larger files, which usually contain films and TV shows, but that's not what's happened.

Instead, the researchers found that people in poorer countries might be downloading content because streaming services such as Netflix just aren't an option.

"In countries where streaming is not widely available because of poor infrastructure or their cost being out of reach for large portions of the population, we see high levels of P2P exchange of movies and TV shows, despite the exchange relying on poorer internet infrastructure," the researchers wrote. "We speculate that this unexpected high level of P2P exchange may be related to the lack of convenient (and appropriately priced) distribution channels."

When you think about it that way, it makes a lot of sense. Studies and surveys have regularly shown that piracy rates decline when it becomes seamless (and cheap) to purchase or rent content that could otherwise be downloaded illegally.

According to the researchers, quantifiable data about the behaviours of BitTorrent users is notoriously difficult to collect, by dint of the sharing protocol's distributed nature.

Unfortunately, our economy only allows us to afford piracy

To overcome this, they collected data from 1.4 million users of Ono, a browser plugin developed by researchers at Northwestern University that speeds up torrent downloads by locating peer connections with low latency. To avoid breaches of user privacy, the researchers only collected data relating to the country of origin, the size of the file, and the time of exchange.

While scientifically interrogating and quantifying the online habits of media pirates may be new, the thriving cultures of illegality in poorer nations like Peru, which has some of the slowest internet connections on the globe, have been well documented. Earlier this year, Motherboard visited the country and interviewed the purveyors of bootleg DVDs.

One pirate there summed up the problem when he said, "Unfortunately, our economy only allows us to afford piracy."

The study's findings also speak to the quality of legal distribution channels for the types of files most popularly downloaded in economically developed countries—music. While Netflix and the many illegal streaming sites on the net make watching video extremely cheap and easy, access to music online is still largely controlled by gatekeepers like Apple via iTunes.

Although alternatives like Spotify, Rdio, and Beats exist, their ability to pay musicians is much-maligned and their murky legal status leaves them open to attack by regulators, (at least  in the case of Grooveshark). Beyond that, as large as Spotify's library is, it still isn't exhaustive; often, illegally downloading obscure bands' albums can be the only way to find a digital copy.

While the researchers don't suggest any concrete solutions for making access to the kinds of media popular with pirates in various countries easier, their findings are nonetheless enlightening.

They suggest, for one, that better internet access in poorer countries would allow for wider access to streaming services, not to mention many other important services like social media in times of civil unrest.

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