This week, while Reddit and Google and Wikipedia were protesting the movement through Congress of SOPA and PIPA, legislation designed to add even more online protections for copyright holders, the Department of Justice and hacktivist collective Anonymous were going to war over an iconic site shut down using existing laws.
The U.S. Dept. of Justice shut down Megaupload yesterday, after filing an indictment charging the Hong Kong-based site facilitated the illegal download of millions of files containing copyrighted music, movies and software, costing copyright holders at least $500 million in lost revenue.
Some of the allegedly illegal content was hosted on Megaupload servers in Ashburn, Va., which gave the DoJ both jurisdiction to act and a target to raid, according to the Associated Press.
Hours after the Megaupload raid became known, Anonymous launched what it called its largest operation ever, as more than 5,000 members and friends launched DDOS attacks on the DoJ and other law-enforcement sites and against dozens of sites, including those owned by the Recording Industry of America (RIAA) and Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the U.S. Copyright Office.
A statement from DoJ said Megaupload CEO Kim Dotcom (formerly Schmitz), 37, and three other company employees were arrested in New Zealand by New Zealand authorities acting on behalf of the U.S. DoJ has issued arrest warrants for three other employees, who are still free.
DoJ charged the Megaupload execs with racketeering, conspiracy, copyright infringement and money laundering. They could get five years in prison for the copyright infringement charges alone, the DoJ statement said.
A statement posted on Megaupload before the site came down said the charges were exaggerated by politics and anti-content-piracy hysteria.
"The fact is that the vast majority of Mega's Internet traffic is legitimate, and we are here to stay. If the content industry would like to take advantage of our popularity, we are happy to enter into a dialogue. We have some good ideas. Please get in touch," the statement said.
Megaupload attorney Ira Rothken, who is known for defending other web sites accused of copyright violations, promised a spirited multinational defense against what he called an aggressive and improperly executed process.
"There are significant issues of due process," Rothken told CNET. "The government has taken down one of the world's largest storage providers and have done so without giving Megaupload an opportunity to be heard in court."
The raid infuriated gamers and file sharers, though even in the most partisan discussions most acknowledged the need to address copyright infringement for copyright holders in ways that don't violate rights of those who consume the content.
"It is no secret that Megaupload was a popular site for the illegal distribution of copyrighted material," according to one poster in the Steam gamer forum. "But if they were, as they claim, diligent about responding to takedown requests, I hope the end verdict is in their favor."
Best defense is Anonymous offense?
Anonymous, meanwhile, posted a statement announcing #OpMegaupload, "our largest attack ever, on government and music industry sites," the statement read. "The FBI didn't think they would get away with this did they? They should have expected us."
The statement listed 10 sites Anonymous DDOS attacks brought down:
“Get some popcorn… it’s going to be a long lulzy night,” one post read at AnonNews.org, a primary outlet for Anonymous news releases, announcement and updates on ongoing operations.
By early this morning U.S. time, however, AnonNews.Org was down as well.
Despite the misgivings of Megaupload's lawyer, the DoJ raid on Megaupload could not have been better timed as a way to intensify the debate over copyright infringement, censorship and the twin SOPA and PIPA bills before Congress.
As Rothken pointed out, Megaupload has been shut down, perhaps permanently, before the government has even begun presenting its case.
That might be appropriate for businesses charged with being mainly devoted to illegal operations – Bernie Madoff's investment firm, for example, which turned out to be an elaborate Ponzi scheme defrauding new customers every day it operated.
For operations like Megaupload, which host far more legal files than allegedly illegal, shutting the whole thing down and charging its main function was to profit from copyright infringement – especially before proving any infringement had taken place or even that posting copyrighted files does constitute infringement – violates the assumption of innocence and requirement that the accused receive a fair trial.
Those are exactly the issues that troubled many about SOPA and PIPA – those and the overbroad definitions of what constitutes an offense.
Combining an imprecise definition of infringement and permission for the DoJ to shut down entire sites or family of sites accused of even a small amount of copyright infringement is the alchemical process that turned both SOPA and PIPA from potentially noble efforts into weapons for totalitarians.
Rather than trying to give creators and owners of creative content control over their work, SOPA and PIPA focus on enforcement and punishment, making them instead vindictive, extra-judicial , government-sanctioned programs to punish those who don't conform to business models that have not adapted to new technologies, new customers or even old ideas of civil rights, justice and the assumption of guilt.
Given the amount and dramatic scope of resistance from Wikipedia, Reddit, Anonymous and others, both the DoJ and Congress should look again at their process for enforcing copyright and back off the bullying tactics RIAA and MPAA present as the only way to address even the smallest violation.
RIAA, at least, wasn't impressed with Wikipedia's blackout demonstration this week; we can only hope DDOS attacks from Anonymous wake it and other SOPA supporters up to how deeply opposed members of the Internet community are to heavy-handed tactics like these, and how high the price will be for continuing to pursue them.
Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.