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The Virtual Jackboot

Steven Titch
January 20, 2012, 2:55pm

Americans got a preview of what life would be like under the U.S. Senate's Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) when the Department of Justice and the FBI yesterday shut down Megaupload.com and arrested its founder and six other executives on charges of illegally sharing copyrighted material.

The move comes in the middle of a vociferous debate on PIPA and its House counterpart, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and provides more fuel for opponents who argue that the bills threaten to undermine legal, legitimate mechanisms that are integral to the Internet technological and social utility (See my commentary posted yesterday afternoon).

PIPA supporters have argued that worries about Internet censorship and user disruption are exaggerated and the bill's real goal is to target shadowy "rogue" sites that deal in counterfeit merchandise and pirated video downloads. Yesterday we found out just who the Feds thinks these rogue sites are.

Megaupload.com is a major commercial file-sharing site used by millions of consumers and businesses in the course of daily business. Users park large files that can then be shared among friends, family or professional workgroups. It competes directly with other such services such as Dropbox and RapidUpload. Megaupload claims to have about 50 million daily visits and even DoJ notes that at one point it was estimated to be the 13th most frequently visited site on the Internet.

Can infringing material be found on Megaupload? No doubt it can. But infringing material can also be found on YouTube and just about every other file-sharing site. The courts have held that these sites are not liable for infringement as long as they honor cease and desist notices to take down offending content.

The DoJ's indictment rests on the claim that Megaupload.com first and foremost was in the business of piracy. The seven executives arrested yesterday (a group that did not include the company's CEO, Swizz Beatz, the husband of singer Alicia Keyes) are being charged with racketeering. The indictment claims that Megaupload.com robbed artists, musicians and authors of $500 million, and that the site is actually a front for a worldwide conspiracy.

These charges might yet be true, but the supposition shouldn't trump due process. That it did brings the precise concerns of PIPA and SOPA critics into high relief. In addition to the arrest, the Feds have forced Megaupload.com to shut down, essentially seizing not only private property of Megaupload, but the documents, photos, videos and artwork of millions of legitimate users--some of it crucial to their livelihoods--on what amounts to a thin pretext that could be applied to any file-sharing site. Anonymous, the loosely knit "hacktivist" group, made its feelings known with its retaliatory DDoS attacks on DoJ, FBI, MPAA and RIAA sites yesterday, but I think there's more blowback to come. A significant number of average Americans lost time, money and digital property yesterday in what they perceive as a massive overreach by a DoJ that is already under fire for its blundering tactics (Fast and Furious, the Black Friday poker site shutdowns). I'll bet the phones were ringing off the hook in many Congressional offices this morning.

Moreover, the charges may not stick. By all accounts, Megaupload is gearing up for a fight. As its lead attorney notes, case law, including the YouTube decision, favors the company. Plus there's the fact there are no copyright judgments currently against it. It reportedly has also been working to iron out copyright issues with rightsholders, and has garnered support from a cross-section of artists and performers--the very community that the government alleges Megaupload has been ripping off. But even it wins, it might be a Phyrric victory, because by the time the legal dust settles, Megaupload may well be out of business. Elsewhere, Dropbox and RapidUpload execs must be sweating.

The takeaway from all this is that SOPA and PIPA will codify these DoJ tactics. And with the Megaupload siezure sitting out there as Exhibit A, no one can take the Feds at their word that they will exercise any restraint or discretion in their definition of a "rogue" site.  

The best hope is that Megaupload turns out to be the egg that make the omelet. The good news out of this week of contentious debate is that is that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has pulled the Tuesday PIPA vote from the floor calendar. In the lower chamber, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith said his panel won't take up "there is wider agreement on a solution."

Looks like the good guys might just win one.

Here's Mike Riggs take on Reason.com's Hit and Run.



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