The arrests of four executives of Megaupload, a major Internet file-sharing site, have triggered an online backlash, and raised fresh questions about electronic piracy and copyright violations. What’s behind the controversy? NPR asked two experts to help clarify the facts behind the arrests.
Some background: The four were arrested in New Zealand for alleged online piracy-related activities in the United States. A federal indictment accuses the site of costing content creators at least $500 million in lost revenue. In a statement, Megaupload officials said the figure was “grotesquely overblown.”
The arrests came at a particularly sensitive time in the debate about online piracy, coming just a day after websites such as Wikipedia had led protests against bills in Congress known as the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, and the Protect IP Act, or PIPA.
NPR posed questions to Barrett Lyon, an ex-hacker and founder of 3Crowd, an Internet services company; and Nicolas Christin, associate director at Carnegie Mellon University’s Information Networking Institute.
Q: Is the timing of the Megaupload arrests, so close to the online protests over SOPA and PIPA, more than just a coincidence?
Lyon: I think it’s more than a coincidence. … The fact that they’re going after Megaupload may be because they are trying to bolster piracy protection and give authorities more control over the situation instead of letting [SOPA/PIPA] protesters control the situation.
Christin: My guess is that it is just a coincidence. I think it usually takes quite a while for law enforcement to build enough of a case, especially where international jurisdictions are concerned, to be able to make an arrest.
Q: How important is the shutdown of Megaupload?
Christin: Megaupload and other large sharing sites are playing an increasing role on the Internet. What is interesting is that the Justice Department used the fact that Megaupload had servers in the U.S. to go after them. I think they wanted to make a statement that if you violate copyright laws and do any sort of business in the United States, we can go after you.
Lyon: The interesting thing about this is that this may create some sort of galvanized movement against the SOPA/PIPA movements, because it’s taken a regional debate in the United States and put it on a world stage. Anonymous is not an American movement, it’s global. So, now you’ve angered a global group of individuals who are interested in attacking U.S. properties because they don’t like U.S. politics.
Q: Did the fact that celebrities have endorsed the Megaupload site raise its profile in the eyes of authorities?
Lyon: Megaupload had attracted the attention of some celebrities, and I think that may have put them on the radar a bit more than other file-sharing sites.
Christin: It’s probably that it raised their profile more in the eyes of the motion picture industry. The entertainment industry has pushed quite hard for authorities to intervene in cases like this.
Q: If the U.S. authorities can nab these people with such ease halfway around the world, doesn’t that undercut the rationale for SOPA?
Christin: It’s a good question, and I don’t have an answer. SOPA would not have made a difference in this particular case.
Lyon: It does show that [SOPA] isn’t a necessity to enforce anti-piracy laws, doesn’t it?
Q: How difficult is it for hackers to crash the Department of Justice and FBI websites with denial-of-service attacks?
Lyon: If you look at the attacks themselves, Anonymous is making it easier. All you have to do is go to a URL, and your computer instantly becomes part of the attack. If you look at the websites that were hit, it’s not clear that the attacks had much impact. The U.S. government sites are still up and operating fine.
Christin: The scale of the attack is surprising. It is not difficult to carry out a denial-of-service attack, but it is fairly difficult to carry out a very successful one against sites that should be fairly well protected.