Secrecy and Darkness Surround Mysterious $900m Piracy Report

Anti-piracy reports that are commissioned by the entertainment industries are suspicious by definition, but the mystery that surrounds a recent study goes far beyond that. Despite being widely covered in the press, no journalist has actually seen a copy of the report. Even worse, the company that produced the in-depth report was registered only four months ago, and appears to be carefully hidden from the public.

top secretTo convince the government that harsher anti-piracy legislation is needed, a coalition of Australian entertainment industry outfits – under the umbrella name Australian Content Industry Group (ACIG) – commissioned a study on the economical impact of Internet piracy. Although by itself this is nothing out of the ordinary, the lack of transparency and shadiness that surrounds it is stunning.

In late February the report in question was first mentioned in a speech by Attorney General McClelland, who was speaking at a conference on future directions in copyright law. At the time the public were not yet aware of the report’s existence. Journalists too remained in the dark.

The same could be said for the Australian Content Industry Group. The copyright coalition, which doesn’t have a public website, was virtually unknown at that point also. The group consists of a variety of entertainment industry outfits, most prominently Music Industry Piracy Investigations (MIPI), but until then had only appeared in a few recent government consultations.

That’s some background on the report, now let’s fast forward two weeks.

On March 6th, Australian newspaper The Age published a series of articles on Internet Piracy. Interestingly enough, the aforementioned report was at the center of the series that quickly made headlines. In particular the hit piece “Nation of unrepentant pirates costs $900m”, written by freelance journalist Neil McMahon, was picked up by dozens of other news outlets.

Curious about this seemingly influential report that dominated the headlines last week, we decided to take a good look at the company that conducted the research — Sphere Analysis. However, this was easier said than done.

Like the Australian Content Industry Group, Sphere Analysis doesn’t seem to have a web presence. With no website and no employees, not even a single reference to the company could be found. How could this be? Wouldn’t it be logical that such a big report would be written by a renowned company?

To us it seemed a little suspicious to say the least, so the first question that came to mind was: Who are behind Sphere Analysis?

With help from the Pirate Party, we found that Sphere Analysis is a business name registered to the ‘Sphere Property Corporation’. This company, which again has no web presence, appears to operate in the real-estate business. Not the type of business you’d expect to write an analysis of Internet piracy on the Australian economy.

Interestingly, ‘Sphere Analysis’ was registered less than four months ago, which means that immediately after it was registered they got this major contract. So who are these people?

sphere

To find out more about the company, calls were made to several numbers associated with Sphere Property Corporation but again without results. All calls went to so-called ‘virtual offices‘, where either the company name didn’t ring a bell, or where the person who answered the line was not allowed to give out information.

Additional research eventually led us to an alleged employee of Sphere Property Corporation, Phil Nott, who lists himself as a Real Estate Consultant on Linkedin. No other employees were found and Mr. Nott has two Linkedin profiles, each with just one connection.

Aside from dealing with real estate, Sphere Property Corporation also seems to be connected to the investing company Sphere Capital Advisers and the recruitment business Sphere Associates.

None of the above companies has a website of course, so that’s pretty much where our Sphere Analysis trail ended.

Now that our interest in the report had been pushed even higher, we wanted to know how Sphere Analysis concluded that illicit movie, music and games downloads cost the industry $900 million a year as well as 8,000 jobs. Aside from a few key figures quoted in The Age article, the full report was unfortunately nowhere to be seen.

But we were not the only ones left in the dark. The journalist who wrote the original article for The Age confirmed to TorrentFreak that he wasn’t provided with the full report either. His article was based on information he was given by ‘someone’ he didn’t want to name without permission.

In an attempt to get a copy of the report, we then began emailing several outfits that fall under the Australian Content Industry Group, but without a response. In addition the Australian Pirate Party submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Attorney General’s office, but that is still being processed.

So here we are. After a week of sending emails, making phone calls, and digging through all kinds of information we were unable to get our hands on the full report. On the contrary, the mystery surrounding the report is even greater because of the vagueness surrounding Sphere Analysis.

This is worrying, especially when the Attorney General clearly indicates that it influences future legislation. The Pirate Party, who helped us in our quest for information, agrees.

“Where such reports or studies direct the policy direction of our governments, there is a democratic imperative that the information is made available transparently, that the methodologies are sound and adequately reflect reality,” said Pirate Party’s Rodney Serkowski.

“The Age article inferred that the Attorney General was basing the government’s policy direction on these research figures. This is a very, very shaky foundation for public policy — especially when there is a growing consensus that the institution of copyright requires radical structural reform, lest it becomes irrelevant,” he added.

And then there’s the issue with hiring the brand new and unfindable Sphere Analysis to conduct such an important report.

“This study, carried out by a virtually unknown entity with access only being granted to one journalist is highly dubious, even for the copyright lobby. Any study that gets reported as fact should be made available to the general public. The fact that it is not casts a question over its contents,” said Pirate Party’s Simon Frew.

So, will Sphere Analysis step forward immediately with a full copy of this apparent policy-setting report either to us or another news outlet? Is transparency the way forward or are we to blindly accept spoon-fed ‘statistics’ from faceless groups, regurgitate them as fact, help build credibility where none has been earned and then work the whole thing into law? That can’t be the way forward.

Update: Just to illustrate that we’re not the only one who question these practices, here’s a comment from researcher Guy Cranswick.

“In my capacity as a researcher I requested the report from one of the organisations in the so-called copyright alliance but no reply has come which is very suspicious because normally these organisations are very happy to send their expensive studies to known researchers and other media contacts.”

“As no one has see this report it goes to the core of journalistic credibility that a paper such as The Age could have published news about this uncorroborated survey.”

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