SOPA & Megaupload: The End of Instant Gratification?
I remember the day I learned I could have anything I wanted. I was twelve years old, sitting in the auditorium of my middle school with a few friends, when the conversation turned towards music. One guy brought up something called “Kazaa,” a computer program that held a seemingly infinite amount of free music inside. Not only was there a ton of music, my friend continued, but there were movies, computer games, pictures, and of course, porn. I had heard briefly about Napster a few years before, but I never quite understood what it did or how it worked. I just knew that some dude in college got sued by Metallica because of it. This, at least according to my friend, was light years ahead of Napster. I raced home from the bus stop that day, hopped on the computer my sister and I shared, and immediately downloaded Kazaa.
What started that day eleven years ago is something I’m not proud of. Kazaa, Limewire, and iMesh gave way to torrents, file-hosting websites, and shady deep-web piracy hubs. I accumulated thousands of gigabytes of music and movies, some of which I’d never even listen to or watch, but it didn’t matter. I had it, for free. A ton of people my age pilfered in the same way, illegally obtaining anything and everything just for the hell of it. But that era has come crashing to a halt in the past two weeks, thanks to SOPA, PIPA, and the raid on Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom’s mansion.
Dotcom was arrested on January 19th, when authorties raided his New Zealand mansion and arrested him for copyright infringement. Dotcom, whose real last name is Schmitz, made a fortune during the dotcom boom of the early 2000s (hence the name change). He used some of his fortune to start Megaupload, one of the biggest and fastest file-sharing websites on the internet. In case you don’t know, these sites allow anyone to upload a file to their servers, where they’ll host it for others around the world to download. Some sites allow you to upload for free, and most allow you to download for free, provided you wait a certain amount of time. They make money by charging for premium service, and of course, through ad revenue. They’ve been around for years, but really started getting popular in 2006, when blogs committed entirely to pirating media began using services like Megaupload to host their wares.
Of course, all of this was (and is) highly unethical and illegal, but they existed in a grey area that couldn’t be policed effectively. Watchdog companies sprouted up to seek out these illegal files, but most musicians couldn’t afford or be bothered to use them. All a lawyer had to do was send a cease and desist letter to the offending blog, who would have to take down the link immediately or face further legal action. A slap on the wrist. The biggest file-hosting companies, like Megaupload, Rapidshare, and Mediafire had large and well-trained legal teams to stay in business. Of course, they never state that their business is in illegal file-sharing, but rather the thousand other legal uses for a file-hosting site. When Megaupload was taken down on the 19th, the era of free internet all but ended. I don’t mean “free” in the literal sense, although that’s a big part of it too.
Megaupload’s fall has created a domino effect, and many file-hosting sites are shutting down to prevent a similar fate, and jail time. As it stands, the only file-sharing site with a real chance is Rapidshare, a well-established and well-protected website that seems to be popular with the “legal” users. I’m not defending file-sharing, nor am I defending Dotcom or his business. In fact, Dotcom’s arrogance and flagrant displays of wealth likely contributed to his downfall. He’s long been a major pain in the ass for copyright holders, and it’s probably good that we’re rid of him. But what happened to him is scary, because it offically marks the end of the file-sharing era. I’m not saying it will cease to exist altogether, but when SOPA comes back to Congress, Megaupload’s fall will be seen as an important first step in the eventual cencorship of the internet.