By Kelly Haugh
The internet was shocked January 19 when the favored file hosting website Megaupload was taken offline and seven of its owners and operators in several countries were arrested.
The repercussions of the FBI’s seizure of the many Mega-branded sites and the Hollywood-style raid on Megaupload owner Kim Dotcom’s New Zealand mansion immediately echoed throughout the web. Coming only one day after a successful global protest of the anti-piracy bills SOPA and PIPA that would have given the U.S. government and the entertainment industry broad powers to censor the internet, the act was seen as the U.S. government flexing its might to show that it didn’t need new legislation to police the world wide web.
The outcome of this case could change the internet as we know it, giving the government unprecedented power to censor at will without such a thing as due process, a right which is guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment. If websites have to be completely responsible for everything their users do then they will either need to monitor every keystroke or shut down to avoid possible litigation. In the weeks following the Megaupload seizure, many popular file hosts, especially those in the U.S., did just that. They changed their business models and either put an end to the sharing of files or shut down completely.
But it gets worse. Dotcom revealed that he has uncovered the man responsible for the seizure of his foreign-based website. “I do know from a credible source that it was Joe Biden, the best friend of former Senator and MPAA boss Chris Dodd, who ordered his former lawyer and now state attorney Neil MacBride to take Mega down,” Dotcom told TorrentFreak, a news blog devoted to file sharing and copyright information.
Following a tip, Dotcom was able to verify that Biden had a meeting with many of the major studio executives and MPAA chairman and former senator Chris Dodd through the publicly available White House visitor logs. It was at this meeting that Dotcom claims they discussed shutting down Megaupload, though Biden and the Department of Justice insist the meetings had nothing to do with Megaupload.
“It is interesting that a man by the name of Mike Ellis of MPA Asia, an extradition expert and former superintendent of the Hong Kong police, was also at a meeting with Dodd, all studio bosses and Joe Biden.” Dotcom pointed out. “The same Mike Ellis met with the Minister of Justice Simon Power in New Zealand.”
Dotcom also claims to have even more evidence to substantiate the link between Biden and the Megaupload shutdown, but he has yet to hint at what that evidence may be. He has said he will release it “at the appropriate time.”
In 2010, Biden announced that copyright infringement and online piracy were going to be one of the Obama administration’s main focuses, as if they didn’t have more important things like the economy to worry about. In his speech during the first Joint Strategic Plan of Obama’s administration, Biden declared piracy a major threat to national security and the economy, ignoring the findings of the Government Accountability Office that found no link between piracy and the entertainment industry’s claimed losses.
Given this stated focus on ending piracy and the big money Hollywood donors helping to fund Obama’s re-election campaign, it’s hard to believe that such a major global operation against Megaupload wouldn’t have involved the White House in some way, especially since it walks the edge of legality. Already, challenges by Dotcom’s lawyers in New Zealand have been successful in getting evidence thrown out because of illegal searches, illegal spying, and the illegal seizure of some of his money and possessions.
Many law experts in the U.S. have already pointed out the many flaws in the Justice Department’s case against Megaupload. Taking down Megaupload’s websites without a trial is a denial of due process and fundamental right of presumed innocence. The government essentially stole the content of legitimate users when they seized the site, and along with the MPAA they’ve petitioned the court to continue to deny all users access to their data as some users have attempted to sue to have their data returned.
Political activist group Demand Progress filed a brief with the court as a non-party on the side of Megaupload and their users. They rightfully argue in their statement that, “The MPAA reasons property owners should prove their property non-infringing before the Court permits them access to it. This is akin to arguing that when a thief rents a hotel room and is caught, the contents of all of the guests’ luggage should be presumed contraband until proven otherwise.”
What may be more worrisome than the case’s threat to due process and presumed innocence is the threat posed to free speech. The internet is a place that allows for the free exchange of ideas in a worldwide community. If the government or groups like the MPAA are granted the right remove things from the web and arrest site owners for user-created or shared content, then where does it stop? Are blogs and news sites going to be taken down because of a user comment?
What will happen to Facebook or Youtube? If a Facebook user makes a threat on their page, will the whole website be pulled while owner Mark Zuckerberg is arrested and charged in connection with the threat? Youtube is notorious for copyrighted material uploaded by its users, so of course it will have to go or Google will have to scrub the site clean and be meticulous about what videos it allows.
Suddenly, everything online will have to be approved by a moderator before it can be consumed by the masses, so say goodbye to instant communication and information if the Justice Department wins their case against Megaupload.
Even if Megaupload wins, the future of the internet will remain uncertain for as long as Obama and Biden are in office. The public and the internet thought they’d beaten the threat to the internet posed by SOPA and PIPA, but the Megaupload case allows Obama and Biden to circumvent Congress and get the courts to grant them the power to control and censor the internet, thereby keeping their Hollywood donors happy.
Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, calls the prosecution of Megaupload “a depressing display of abuse of government authority” and claims that “the government is simply making up the law to try to hold Megaupload accountable for its users’ uploading/downloading.”
He argues that the government is “acting as a proxy for private commercial interests” because of the “Obama administration’s desire to curry continued favor and campaign contributions from well-heeled sources.”
It’s no secret that Megaupload was a thorn in the entertainment industry’s side. Besides its popular file hosting site that garnered 50 million visitors per day, the Mega brand was, coincidentally, about to launch a new music site before they were busted. Known as Megabox, the site was meant to be far better than the industry’s “outdated” business model by giving users free music while paying the artists with advertising revenue. The artists would also have full control over their content and would directly receive all the profits from the advertising, which would have eliminated the middle man, aka the record label. Megabox would have included exclusive content from many big-name artists like The Black Keys and Will.i.am.
It’s easy to see why the launch of Megabox would have worried record labels. If it was a success, it would be further proof that, in many ways, they have become obsolete. So it’s no wonder why they would have called up their good pals Obama and Biden to do them a solid for a little more campaign cash.
In the end, this is why Goldman believes the Megaupload case shows that those who want to control the internet under the guise of copyright infringement will eventually win, because of “the administration’s willingness to break the law, if necessary, to keep content owners happy.”
If Obama wins November 6, the internet could indeed become a very different place, and those who run websites may just find themselves sharing a jail cell with those who enjoy sharing content or those who used Megaupload to back up their own movies or music.
“The war for the internet has begun,” as Dotcom says in his song “Mr. President.” “Hollywood is in control of politics. The government is killing innovation. Don’t let them get away with that.”