Saturday, February 4, 2012

Mega-piracy: Megaupload And When "Sharing" Becomes "Stealing"

The dismantling of file-sharing service Megaupload, and the arrest of its executives, has elicited a lot of techno-libertarian commentary about the heavy hand of the state ("how can American law enforcement shut down a site based in Hong Kong?!" they ask querulously) and the even heavier hand of Big Music lobbying shutting down a competitor. The hipsters are up in arms, but when you look at what megaupload was doing, you can't help wondering what all the fuss is about. The fact is, these guys were, at the least, aiding and abetting in theft.

Possibly the biggest anti-piracy bust of all time took place on January 20th, when a global sting operation led by the FBI and the Department of Justice brought down the file-sharing giant Megaupload – and arrested its founder, the 38-year-old German hacker and playboy Kim Dotcom. "I defy anyone to go back and find something bigger than this," says a source at a major record label. "This makes LimeWire look like kindergarten." 
Born Kim Schmitz, Dotcom was arrested in Auckland, New Zealand, where he lived in what is reportedly the country's most expensive private home. Six other Megaupload executives were also arrested. The crew is charged with "criminal copyright infringement and money-laundering on a massive scale" – an estimated $500 million of pirated content, with a combined $175 million in income. (Megaupload claimed to have 50 million daily visits and four percent of the Internet's total traffic.) Authorities seized Dotcom's mansion and 18 luxury cars, including a 2008 Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead CoupĂ© with a GOD license plate. 
Dotcom, who was denied bail, is in an Auckland prison facing as much as 20 years if he's found guilty. Megaupload's U.S. attorney, Ira Rothken, insists that the company was a content-storage site, similar to Dropbox, and Dotcom had no knowledge of any of its users' piracy activities. "This is basically a showing of copyright extremism by the government, in taking down an entire site in an overbroad manner, without giving Megaupload an opportunity to be heard in court," says the attorney.

The actual service isn't hard to understand. They were providing server space for people to upload music and then share that music with anyone with access to the file. And that's fine as long as you're talking about sharing music with your buddies, but a lot of megaupload customers took things way beyond that. 

A perfect example is the Plow That Broke The Plains, a well designed blog that used to post uploads of a ton of music. Most of the music was obscure and out-of-print, so no one's really going to care. But they were posting plenty of major label stuff as well. In the last months of its existence, they uploaded albums by Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, Scott Walker, Earth Wind & Fire, and several others. The hosts provided you with a link and a password that took you to the Megaupload site where you actually downloaded the tunes. After about the 30th time they posted a Bob Dylan album I wondered, "how could this possibly be legal?" Their way of addressing this was an anodyne statement that the music was not hosted on their own servers and that you (the downloaders) should delete the files after 24 hours, which I am sure happened all the time (snort). Legal or not, I note that they are no longer there, the blog having gone down the memory hole, along with Megaupload. 

Whatever its merits, Megaupload itself looks like it's up to no good. Clicking a  Plow  link would take you to the Megaupload site, which looked to me like the internet without spam filters. The thing had so many banner ads, "click-this-link" ads, and flashing pixels it was hard to see where to click for the download. Clicking the download button unleashed another torrent of ads. If you could digitize the concept of "The Hustle," then megaupload was a hustler's paradise. It looked more like a spam factory or a phishing farm than a legitimate business. (similar sites like Mediafire are not nearly as bad). I never finished a download from megaupload because they seemed fundamentally untrustworthy.

Megaupload's founder, "Kim Dotcom," (uh huh) doesn't exactly inspire confidence. Here is his house: 

James Bond hideaway: Kim Dotcom's sprawling mansion in Coatesville, north west of Auckland, can be seen in this image. Police today revealed the extraordinary details behind the arrest of the multi-millionaire

And here he is with a babe and a boat

Living the high life: Enjoying the sun of the Virgin Islands with a mystery woman

The guy screams "Mafia!" not "Mogul!" I would advise those well-intentioned folks making a martyr out of Megaupload to search more carefully for your Jesus. 

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