FEDS SHUT DOWN MEGAUPLOAD: GOOD OR BAD?
Wednesday was a big day for the Internet, as protests by Google, Wikipedia, Reddit and thousands of other websites not only raised general awareness of the dangers of the SOPA and PIPA bills working their way through Congress but also convinced a significant number of lawmakers to withdraw their support of the bills. While piracy is a big problem that needs to be addressed, SOPA and PIPA would fail to solve that problem while inadvertently trampling all over free speech rights and stifling innovation — Wednesday’s protests were a huge victory for you, MetalSucks, and everyone.
But Internet advocates took a big blow yesterday when it was announced that the U.S. government shut down the popular file-sharing site Megaupload. The timing seems apt given all the SOPA/PIPA hooplah, but that actually strikes me as a coincidence — you can’t just suddenly wrap up a long ongoing investigation in 24 hours.
Here’s something that’s probably going to surprise a lot of people who regular read my columns about the music industry, Spotify, SOPA/PIPA, etc: I actually have no problems with Megaupload being shut down. Good riddance.
Here’s the thing that really got my goat about Megaupload: the vast, vast amounts of cash that the owners earned from display advertising on the site — a grand sum of $42 million in 2011 alone, to be exact — all on the backs of pirated content. To me there is a fine ethical line that is crossed from when you go from simply providing a service for people to use as they please to generating huge profits from stolen material.
Lettuce be cereal: the vast majority of activity on these sites is for pirated materials, and don’t you dare attempt to make a serious argument otherwise. File-sharing services like Megaupload (and Rapidshare, SendSpace, etc) can provide a very useful service to people using them for legitimate means, such as sending ProTools files back and forth for recording sessions, sending large Photoshop files and photos, sending music writers like us advance copies of albums, etc etc, but there are plenty of file-sharing services that bill themselves as being more business-focused, legit platforms for these needs. Dropbox and YouSendIt come to mind, not to mention good old-fashioned FTP transfers, all of which allow and will continue to allow thousands of good-intentioned folks to transfer files that faciliate their business. Those services have storage limits, bandwidth limits or some combination of the two, and usually have tiered pricing plans if you need more of either. The pay walls certainly keep out the majority of those who use the services exclusively for illegal downloading. So when a site like Megaupload gets shut down — whose userbase largely has free accounts they use to pirate music, movies and software — meh, I don’t shed a tear, because there are plenty of other legit portals that provide these services; innovation is not being stifled and a bad precedent is not being set. Although I admit that there is a slippery slope here, and we really do have to be careful where this goes.
The larger issue here, of course, is how the shutdown of Megaupload will effect piracy on a larger scale. The short answer is that it probably won’t. Torrents still exist as an incredibly popular pirating medium, and they will continue to exist even if popular portals that list them, like The Pirate Bay, are shut down too; torrents are incredibly difficult to address precisely because no central server of any kind is needed, it’s all P2P. And let’s not bury our heads in the sand and pretend that I can’t just use my Gmail account (currently with a 7.6GB limit, and rising) to email my friend a few tracks, or an album, or that I can’t walk over to my buddy’s house with my 1TB hard drive and copy my entire music collection to his computer within a matter of minutes. These were problems that SOPA/PIPA did not addresses, and they will be problems with those bills in any re-written form they may end up taking in the future. You can’t fight the Internet and you can’t fight technology. Piracy seems an inevitable consequence of both.
But at least for now, someone who generated $42 billion of personal income on the backs of bands we all know and love is in the slammer, and that’s a good thing.