On Wednesday, January 18, sites all over the internet blacked out in protest of two bills in congress: SOPA and PIPA. These bills, which were being branded as ways to combat online piracy, contained provisions that angered sites all over the web by allowing the US government to unilaterally block a website from public view using the same censoring technology employed by China.
While the protests, which included industry titans Google and Wikipedia, succeeded in stalling the bills, they did nothing to prevent the shut down of a site called Megaupload, which occurred the very next day. Criminology experts point to Megaupload’s interface for sharing copyright-protected files as a main reason for the site’s closure.
Megaupload was a file sharing site that allowed people to share files online with others, and to store data online for their own use. While there are many legitimate ways to use such services, the sites owned by Megaupload were being used to pirate illegal copies of movies, music, and other copyrighted content. It was one of the largest file-sharing sites on the web.
Under request from US authorities, New Zealand police arrested the site’s founder, Kim Dotcom, and three others. The domains were seized by the government and their data centers were raided afterward. They were charged with conspiracy to commit racketeering, conspiracy to commit copyright infringement, conspiracy to to commit money laundering, and criminal copyright infringement.
In response to this, several other prominent cloud locker services have changed their sites. Fileserve and FileSonic have eliminated sharing options from their sites, and Uploaded.to has decided not to make itself available in the United States. None of these companies has directly said that they made these changes as a result of the Megaupload seizure, but the timing is hard to miss.
Megaupload had 180 million registered users and accounted for 4 percent of all traffic on the internet. While the suspects will be tried according to local laws, no trial was necessary in order to shut down the site, which could be accomplished using mere suspicion.
The fact that the Justice Department was willing to shut down a site with this kind of attention indicates that there may be no such thing as “too big to fail” on the internet. These actions signify exactly what sites like Google and Wikipedia were concerned about regarding the SOPA and PIPA bills. Internet censorship is a concern for many other innovative companies on the web, and holding these companies accountable for the actions of their users could place many of them under an unnecessary legal burden.
Just how much do internet censorship laws threaten the future of the internet? In a striking display of irony, the author of SOPA, congressman Lamar Smith, violated copyright law by posting a photograph on his website without giving attribution to the creator or paying them for it. Had his own law passed, it would have allowed the government to censor his site from public view.
While the internet censorship bills have lost steam, the raid of Megaupload sends a clear message to online sites. If the Justice Department suspects you of intentionally violating copyright law, they can already shut down your site and have you placed under arrest, even if you don’t live in the United States. It also sends a clear message to online businesses. They must avoid using technologies that could potentially be used for piracy, unless they want to risk losing access to their data.