Last week’s violent government attack on the hugely popular site Megaupload — the U.S. government arresting Belgian citizens in New Zealand, of all places, and stealing at gunpoint servers bank accounts and property — has sent shock waves through the entire digital world.
The first shock was the realization that the gigantic protest against legislative moves (SOPA and PIPA) that would smash the Internet turned out to be superfluous. The thing everyone wanted to prevent is already here. SOPA turns out not to be the unwelcome snake in the garden of free information. The snakes have already taken over the garden and are hanging from every tree.
The second shock took a few days to sink in. It could mean that the whole way in which the digital age has functioned is in danger, or even doomed. This is not a forecast. This doom is all around us right now.
The problem is this: Megaupload was accused of violating copyright through its file-sharing technology. This permits users to upload their own content and permit other users into their space. If anything that one person uploads is of uncertain copyright status — it could be anything, really — sharing it would then seem to amount to a crime.
For some years, the feds have unnecessarily harassed people for nonviolently streaming or sharing content. This has had something of a chilling effect and increased the use of IP-scrambling proxies to keep online habits from being traced. College kids know this all too well. Masking IPs is just the way they live and work.
The attack on Megaupload takes all of this to a different level. This was not some wholly surreptitious, sketchy institution that was trying to get around the law. It was already becoming a legitimate service for launching careers in music and art generally. It seemed to be doing exactly what we expect in the digital age. It was reinventing an old model for new times through innovation in production, delivery and profit sharing.
As I wrote before, this was most likely why the old-line industry came after them. It was not the illegal activities, but their legal ones that made them a target. The moguls do not want change. They crushed the competition.
At the same time, the actual legal rationale that the feds used to blast these people away was their supposed violation of intellectual property through file sharing.
Which raises the question: Is every site that makes file sharing possible in danger? Consider Dropbox, the hugely popular service that allows you to put your files in the cloud and create special folders that share them with others. This allows people to work on shared folders in a collaborative way, and prevents the inevitable problem of version control that comes with emailing back and forth.
How exactly is Dropbox different from Megaupload? It is not that different. It is staid and scholarly, rather than flashy and jazzy. It’s interface is plain and neat, rather than colorful and upbeat. Otherwise, it is hard to qualitatively distinguish one from another.
Dropbox is hardly alone. As TechCrunch puts it:
“Several digital locker services operate like Megaupload. RapidShare and MediaFire are two of the larger services. But these sites have undergone a face-lift recently and at least appear to be much less nefarious than they once were. Other services like Dropbox, iCloud, and Amazon S3 are open to hosting any file type a user uploads. They also make sharing easy, but in a way, that’s a lot more private than Megaupload. Still yet, there are sites like Zoho in which users can easily share content, content that could be copyrightable. But the prime goal of all these sites is open file sharing — just like Megaupload.”
It is hard to see how any file-sharing site can pass muster under the new regime. There are plenty more like SugarSync and FileSonic. As Ghacks points out, users of the latter were greeted with the following ominous message just this week:
Question: What value is a file-sharing site if it doesn’t permit the sharing of files? It becomes a thumb drive in the cloud. Maybe that is a bit of convenience, but it is not highly marketable or useful.
Another tactic that file-sharing sites are using after the Mega attack is to outright ban U.S. users in hopes that this will somehow immunize them from the terror attacks being used by the U.S. government. Thus at one upload site were American users greeted with the following:
Americans look at China with shock that the government doesn’t allow access to a huge amount of the World Wide Web. But look: It is happening right now in the United States, but in an indirect way. This has been called a “virtual Iron Curtain” that is being thrown up around U.S. borders. It has already happened to banking. We are seeing the first signs of this on Internet access.
Another site called uploadbox.com has decided that it will no longer deal with the risk of these kinds of terror tactics and plans to shut down completely at month’s end.
What else? Google Docs allows file sharing and has solved so many problems as a result. This has been a great advantage of this innovation. I use it every day. It is essential. But it is in danger. What about Facebook? I could post a copyrighted image there right now and share it with thousands. Facebook thereby becomes an accessory to the same crimes that Mega is alleged to have abetted.
For that matter, what about email? When I send a file, it doesn’t remove it from my machine. A copy is made and made and made again. Who and what is to say whether what is sent or received is proprietary and made it through all the legal hoops? In the last several weeks, I’ve actually received emails expressing fear of sharing links to public sites!
All these changes go beyond the traditional “chilling effect” of random attacks on free speech and free association. This is a sudden and outright freeze, one that is devastating for the whole way in which the Internet has come to exist. What is called “file sharing” is the unique service that the Internet provides. Without that, the Internet becomes an efficient post office or another means of delivering television-style content.
The reason that the Internet has been the driving forced behind economic growth, political change, social progress and the general uplift of humanity is its capacity for taking scarce goods and converting them into nonscarce goods of infinite duplicability and availability. Information, media, data and images that were once captive of the physical world — paper and ink, film and bankers boxes — have been freed into another realm so that they can serve and enlighten the whole of humanity.
This has happened because of the miracle of duplicating digital goods that are driving economies in the digital age. To ban duplication and file sharing today is no different from banning flight in the 1920s, banning steel in the 1880s, banning the telegraph in the 1830s, banning the printer in the 1430s and banning the wheel and sail at the beginning of mankind’s advance out of the cave.
It will set humanity back. It violates liberty. It attacks everything that constitutes and defines the times in which we live. It replaces a world of sharing and thriving with a world of violence and technological regression. The Internet will continue to exist, but it will take a different form. Large sectors will have to thrive behind very secure pay walls and only within private digital communities.
And who is doing this? The U.S. government. Government in league with old-line corporate elites.
And what is the official reason? To enforce “intellectual property.” It has really come down to this: Either the whole basis of copyright, trademark and patent are scrapped or we could see the death of the digital age as we know it. So long as IP is enforced, the U.S. world empire can continue to roam the world seeking whom it may devour.