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Megaupload, Anonymous, SOPA and the Internet fallout

Patrick Lambert digests the tempestuous events of last week and what it means for the future of the Internet. Was the Megaupload bust really related to SOPA's failure? Was Anonymous' reaction justified?

As it's been reported all over the news now, last week Megaupload, the most popular file sharing site on the Internet, was shut down, and the owners arrested, in a series of high profile raids across many countries, seizing computers, electronics, gadgets, and much more. It was an impressive news item, and both the event itself, and the aftermath, was filled with drama, for many reasons. First, because Megaupload itself was already involved with several lawsuits against Hollywood companies, also because of how much the people behind the site seemed to be taunting the authorities, and because of how close to the SOPA/PIPA defeat the raid happened. But while a lot of Anonymous members seem to take this as their own personal battle, I think this is the wrong cause to get behind, and that in the end, this particular battle won't end up mattering much at all.

First, let's see what the facts were. Megaupload was established in 2005, in Hong Kong, and had grown to become the biggest file sharing site on the web, with over 50 million daily visitors, and 180 million registered users. It was the 13th most popular website in the world. Of perhaps more interest however, is that in order to fully use the site, and get access to large amounts of content, you had to pay a monthly fee. The owner, Kim Dotcom, along with other employees of the company, made millions over these six years. They paid for multiple luxury cars, large screen TVs, electronics, and so on. They were basically living in luxury, thanks to the Megaupload success. And this actually matters.

According to the lawsuits filed by the US Justice Department, along with other countries' law enforcement, Megaupload's main purpose was to conduct illegal activities, mainly to promote the fact that they were hosting a lot of pirated content, and reward users who would upload more content. In the papers filed as part of the operation, we see things like emails between employees, showing that not only they knew full well that their servers were filled with illegal content, but that the employees participated in the exchange. We see logs that indicate the users who were rewarded on the sites were picked because of the large amount of ripped movies they would upload. And this is why I think getting behind this battle is a bad idea for us, common Internet users, or even for Anonymous.

Picking your battles

Here the government isn't going after innocent websites as part of a misguided seizure, and they aren't shutting down a legit site for a year, denying any information to its owner, and then returning it without any explanation. Both of those cases hint at gross misconduct, and should be hailed as problems that need to be fixed, and examples as to why the US Feds should not have the powers that they do over the Internet. But in the case of Megaupload, it's a completely different story. Here, they aren't going after some random business owner who happened to have been mistakenly targeted. They're going after people who, if convicted, built an empire on illegal crimes, knew full well what they were doing, and profited financially from their actions. The money laundering charges are why these raids were conducted by so many countries, and why arrests were done. Seizing the site is equivalent to shutting down their front operation, and preventing their allegedly pirated material from being distributed, just like any seller of counterfeit goods.

So of course, what followed was a massive retaliation from Anonymous. Sites were brought down, including the FBI, the RIAA, MPAA, and several others, in protest to the arrests and the closure of Megaupload. Some have said that this was the biggest DDOS attack so far, and that it would have a serious effect on the Internet. I tend to disagree. Most of these typically last a few days or weeks, then things go back to normal. Intelligent people know that those who flood sites don't represent the majority of web users, and I doubt this will have any political effect. As for the suggestion that the Megaupload case was brought on because of the failure of SOPA, I think it's literally impossible. A case like this, involving International actions around the world, doesn't get planned in less than a few months — usually years. You don't coordinate raids on a dozen locations worldwide within a day, so when the FBI says it's a coincidence, I tend to agree.

What's next?

So if not going crazy over the Megaupload case, what should be done? I completely agree that right now, as it stands, the US Feds have way too much power and discretion as to how they apply the law on websites, especially foreign ones. I also agree that SOPA and PIPA may be dead, but similar laws will be brought up in the coming years, and it's a fight we can't win without large reforms to the system itself. Something has to be done. What? Well, here's an interesting example: This week, following the Megaupload case, Uploaded.to, which is another file sharing site based in Europe, decided to block all US IPs from using its service. This is something that's within reach of foreign web admins, and sends a much more powerful message than flooding sites.

Just think what would happen if suddenly, the US public finds itself blocked from thousands of sites around the world, because their government passed laws that are so ridiculously one sided, no one outside the country is interested in taking any risk dealing with Americans. What if small business owners inside the US decided to start their new online projects using servers, email systems, online office suites, and so on, all based in other countries, because they don't want to risk having biased agencies spying on them? What if suddenly, the US cyber landscape starts emptying itself, with large chunks of data moving away to other countries? When actual jobs start disappearing, and innovation moves offshore, because a few Hollywood monopolies always get their ways in Washington, then politicians will notice. This is what will make things move, not having the MPAA or the CIA site being down for a day.

What do you think of last week's protests and the skirmishing that followed?

About

Patrick Lambert has been working in the tech industry for over 15 years, both as an online freelancer and in companies around Montreal, Canada. A fan of Star Wars, gaming, technology, and art, he writes for several sites including the art news commun...

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