The Internet: When does Regulation become Censorship?

Since the early years of the millennium, file-sharing websites such as Megaupload or Rapidshare have become synonymous with online piracy and the authorities’ powerlessness towards the anarchy of the Internet. It was hugely surprising then, that on the 19th January, the FBI struck hard at, just one day after the widespread protest of the Stop the Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect the IP Act (PIPA), which were working their way through the American Congress.

So just how did the U.S. Justice Department close down the 73rd most popular website in the world? Though Kim Dotcom, the founder of the site, was of Dutch nationality, and the servers hosting the overwhelming majority of Megaupload’s content were situated in Europe and Asia, investigators discovered that a small number of Internet servers had been leased by Megaupload in Virginia, America. Within 24 hours, the FBI seized Megaupload, removing it from the Internet, taking $50 million in assets and arresting four of the company’s key players, including its founder Dotcom. It was revealed in a federal Virginia court that the website had made approximately $172 million in profit since it was founded in 2005, most of which stemmed from copyright infringement, and was responsible for more than $500 million in lost revenue from pirated films, music and other content. The implications of this are staggering; if this case is considered to be under US jurisdiction, then there is very little that isn’t.

Even more alarming is the case of Richard O’Dwyer, a British computer science student at Sheffield Hallam University, who created the TVShack website, and in early 2012 lost the battle against his extradition to the United States for trial; this was made possible by an extradition treaty that was designed to combat terrorism. The site, which made almost a quarter of a million dollars through advertising revenue, was found by US authorities to be hosting links to copyrighted television shows and pirated films. However, O’Dwyer’s lawyers argued that the website simply pointed users to the locations on the Internet where they could watch specific content, in the same way that a legitimate search engine such as Google would. They also made the case that the creation of the website was not illegal in Britain, so there is no precedent in which O’Dwyer could be extradited to the US, where the existence of the site would have been in contention of the law. The case, if successful, is likely to result in more extraditions and court cases for copyright infringement.

Though the recent protests and blackouts against SOPA and PIPA were largely successful, removing masses of congressional support for the bills in their aftermath, the US government’s intervention in the situations involving Megaupload and TVShack demonstrates a newer and much harder attitude of the authorities towards lawbreakers in cases of intellectual property. Laws that encourage heavy regulation of the Internet will always be opposed by the larger, more well known technology firms that seem to be driving the US economy in modern times, but a more efficient and targeted bill against online piracy will secure even their support.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the attitude towards future Internet regulation, and the laws of international extradition accompanying it, is to quote The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organisation that defends free speech and digital rights online. An official spokesperson stated of the Megaupload case that it set “a terrifying precedent. If the United States can seize a Dutch citizen in New Zealand over a copyright claim, what is next?” 

Aatish Thakerar

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