When you think of online piracy, the first image that comes to mind is probably of American teenagers in their dorm rooms, bittorrenting Hollywood movies. "Widespread" piracy, meanwhile, perhaps connotes a visual of bootleg DVDs being hawked on the streets of Shanghai. But perhaps it'd be more accurate to think of an average Chilean family sitting down to watch TV.

That's because in Latin America's Southern Hemisphere, online piracy is more common than anywhere else, according to a new, first-of-its-kind comprehensive report studying the phenomenon in South America.

The report, "South America Television Piracy Landscape," was commissioned by copyright TV industry group Alianza and carried out by online researcher NetNames, which analyzed data from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela. Alianza released the report this month (via TorrentFreak).

The study found that nearly half of all Internet users in the region have used pirating sites or services.

And while the sheer amount of traffic used for piracy in South America pales in comparison with totals from other regions of the world, the widespread popularity of pirating for the average connected Latin American -- concurrent with the rise of connectivity in the region -- poses a daunting challenge for the entertainment industry.

The Pirates of Latin America

Key findings of the South American piracy study present a picture of technologically well-versed Internet users using a variety of methods to get video and audio content online that either costs money they're unwilling to pay, or isn't readily available through more legitimate means.

"The South American Piracy universe is estimated to be made up of 110.5 million individual users across the cyberlocker, peer-to-peer and Live IPTV rebroadcasting ecosystems," the study found. "In context of the wider South American Internet usage, this represents around half of the total estimated regional Internet audience of 222.3 million users, and demonstrates the appetite for infringing content, despite an Internet infrastructure that remains underdeveloped in many regions."

In other words, despite the relative scarcity of connections, bandwidth, and devices, South Americans that are online are showing an impressive capability to use myriad systems to obtain and share pirated media -- and a widespread proclivity to do so.

Unlike the rest of the world, where BitTorrent has become the standard tool for pirates, South American piracy is more likely to occur from direct download sites.

Peer-to-peer transfers require higher bandwidth for optimal transfers, which could be a reason why South American pirates seem to prefer cyberlockers and other more direct avenues.

In fact, connections with cyberlockers (i.e., file-sharing hosts; think Megaupload) accounted for more than half of South America's piracy traffic, according to the study, at 442 petabytes per year for approximately 62.7 million unique users. That's about 28 percent of all South Americans with Internet connections.

Peer-to-peer networks, meanwhile, generated 265 petabytes per year of cyber piracy, while pirated live IPTV broadcasts accounted for 82 petabytes per year in the region. About 46.1 million unique users engaged in P2P piracy (about 20 percent of the region's Internet population), while 8.8 million unique users (four percent) streamed unauthorized live TV rebroadcasts online.

Put together that's 789 petabytes per year in South America from individuals engaging in online piracy, or the equivalent of 2.3 million gigabytes per day.

A Cultural Challenge to Media, Gatekeepers

The significance of these figures isn't found in the totals of data traffic -- file sharing in the U.S. generates more traffic in a month than it does yearly in South America -- but rather in the overall cultural inclination of pirating media.

The Internet is rapidly growing in Latin America ("cures for piracy" like Netflix and Spotify have been available in most of the region for more than a few years, for example). But its expansion is still happening unevenly, in fits and starts.

Hampered by an underdeveloped infrastructure, more limited connectivity, and low, or expensive bandwidth, South American pirates have proved to be resourceful and flexible in how they obtain media online. And the act of piracy is arguably an accepted norm, even if an unspoken one that's officially prohibited.

With this culture in place with half of those who are already connected, NetNames sees the inevitable continued expansion of Internet availability and bandwidth in South America as a threat to copyright holders and broadcasters -- many of whom commissioned the report and will undoubtedly use it to back their lobbying efforts with local governments.

"As Internet infrastructure improves across the region, infringing bandwidth usage is likely to grow significantly, absent any major technical or legal developments and presents challenges not only to rights holders but to those ISPs and other network operators tasked with delivering access to this content," concluded the report.

That more access automatically means more piracy is an assumption, but it's clearly based on a lot of evidence.

Perhaps with more access -- and especially cheaper access, South America could have its "Netflix" moment. With approximately 1.5 billion viewing hours in the region being spent on pirated media annually, at least the industry has proof that the appetite for digital entertainment is quite healthy in that market.