P2P Surveys Becoming Almost Entirely Worthless

Too often, people use survey data to argue that the RIAA’s lawsuits have had a significant impact on downloads. After the latest AP poll, I think it’s time we treat these surveys as wholly unreliable. 

According to WIRED, “Eighty percent of the respondents consider it stealing to download
music for free without the copyright holder’s permission, and 92
percent say they’ve never done it, according to the poll conducted for
The Associated Press and Rolling Stone magazine.”

But it can’t possibly be the case that only 8 percent of Americans (~24 million) have *ever* downloaded without permission.  Over 3 years ago, an Ispos survey found that 60 million Americans had downloaded.  When Pew suggested P2P use had “sharply decline[d]” after the RIAA lawsuits began, the report concluded that 35 million adults had at least at one time been downloading.  Clearly, it’s not that downloading has decreased, but that respondents have become more reluctant to reveal potentially illicit behavior.

In turn, studies that try to monitor P2P networks, to gauge total users and traffic, are more reliable. But  it’s worth noting that these studies are also likely to underestimate the total “darknet,” as P2P users shift to other networks, small groups sharing services, IM, and other channels.  Even that ignores shifts to the sneakernet – studies have also tried to gauge acquisition through CD burning, but people can increasingly use portable and micro hard drives.