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SOPA Scared Us, but the Megaupload Affair Proves the US Government Exercises Unilateral Power

January 20, 2012

In case you did not hear the news this week, the US Government took down servers owned by and worked with authorities in countries around the world to have several of the employees in the company arrested. According to Wikipedia, the company employed 155 people, yet there was no consideration given to the employees and families affected by the actions of the US Government. The Government did not give the defendants an opportunity to answer to the charges. Rather, they just shut them down.

As far as I know, I have never used Megaupload. I only learned about it through the news stories that came out this week. One article by CNN suggested that the site was used by people for all kinds of legitimate purposes. I asked my 17-year-old son if he had heard of the site, to which he positively replied saying he used it all the time. I asked him what for and he said that that’s how a lot of people distribute free mods for games. He said that to his knowledge, he had never downloaded anything from site that was not free for downloading, certainly no music or videos. Apparently, content is only accessible to people who know the URL to the content. What this means is that if the site was used for sharing illegal content, it was certainly not done on the same scale as that of organizations like the Pirate Bay where anybody can go search for content and download it. Per the CNN article, one cannot easily search the Megaupload site. To me, the fact that the site cannot be searched serves to counter any claim by the US Government that the site was primarily used for piracy.

What is really frightening is the fact that the government can so quickly and easily remove any server from the Internet. Is the law on their side? Or is the government overstretching its power? Whatever happened to the idea that a person is innocent until proven guilty? If the founders and operators of Megaupload really created the service primarily for illegitimate reasons, this would all come out in a court of law. Further, finding that the company and its operators were guilty, I would have no objection to the court then ordering that the servers be confiscated and service terminated.

Just the opposite happened here, of course. Not only did the Government shut down the service, but they did so even while the DMCA exists to protect service providers. Megaupload is registered with the Government as a service provider and claims to honor all DMCA take-down requests. I personally have a love for the DMCA, as I viewed that as going overboard in trying to fix a problem, but there is a provision in that law explicitly designed to offer protection to service providers whose users violate copyright laws. The US Government did not care to even respect that law.

What we see is the government going about this the wrong way. They “shoot first and ask questions later.” This seems to be an unfortunate trend with US law enforcement. I could cite so many examples here where I live where police officers have killed innocent people, only to offer up a shallow apology after the fact. What is wrong with America? At least they didn’t murder somebody over a supposedly stolen Platstation this time. (Yes, the police murdered an innocent young man over a stolen Playstation that was, in fact, not stolen at all. They shot him right through the front door of his apartment, killing the young boy and his dog.)

While I fully appreciate the Government’s desire to stop piracy and I support copyright holders, surely they cannot be so naïve as to believe that shuttering a site like Megaupload will address the problem. Piracy has always been an issue. When I was a kid, I remember kids would copy a cassette tape with songs from friends. They did the same thing with computer programs and such. The software industry worked to educate people about piracy. We also used technology to help reduce the rate of piracy (e.g., activation keys and registration processes). Even so, piracy exits. Honest people will be honest. Those who do not want to pay or cannot afford to pay for what they use will not pay for it, period. I will not call it “theft”, though. Unlike stealing a car or a computer, a digital “pirate” merely copies content for personal use without paying the creator of the content. It might mean the copyright holder is deprived of income, but one has to ask: would this person have paid in the first place? Most likely, they would not. After all, each person only has so much disposable income. So, 100 pirated movies, for example, do not represent loss of 100 x the price of a movie. Even so, I believe the MPAA and RIAA would like Congress to believe that is the case.

What I think will likely happen is that acts like this by the Government will push programmers to produce a technological solution to the problem. Today’s pirate networks, for example, utilize a peer-to-peer (P2P) technology. It is difficult to stop such networks, but they have weaknesses. It is possible for the RIAA, for example, to monitor such networks and to then file court cases against individuals. Sharing in a P2P network is not anonymous.

An evolutionary step for P2P technology might be to break up files into many small chunks and distribute those chunks throughout the Internet, storing them on the computers of those people who utilize the P2P network, making redundant copies, and encrypting everything so that no useful information is identifiable on any single node. In effect, nobody is sharing anything, but everybody is sharing everything. The challenge to making this successful would be in devising an approach to splitting the files into pieces and constructing a link chain that allows one to then re-assemble any content from some uniquely identifiable starting point, with every scrap of information stored only in the highly distributed P2P network. Perhaps the only means of accessing the content might be via a URI of the form dhtnet:ec116dcc-43b0-11e1-a81a-12313a003d32, where “dhtnet” refers to some Distributed Hash Table Network or other technology. That URI would not direct a browser to go to any particular web site or server, but would result in the P2P software sending queries through the P2P network and assembling the pieces of the corresponding content, following the links and re-assembling the chunks.

Whatever would the copyright holders do to fight that technology? If implemented properly, there would be nothing that could be done except to outlaw its use, which would be a challenge since I can see good legal uses for the same technology. It could be an avenue to exercise free speech by the oppressed, piracy, or even store your private and person files. Best of all, the whole system would be anonymous and files accessible only if you know the URI.

Copyright holders and the Government should not try to fight technology. Rather, educate people and take steps to improve the incomes of citizens. Doing that removes the financial barriers people face with respect to paying for content. Still, there will be some piracy. The real question is what level of piracy is acceptable? As long as a copyright holder says “none”, then they will never be satisfied.

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