The War Against Online Piracy - Part 1: The full force of the law

The cat-and-mouse game between piracy supporters on the one hand and state authorities and major multinational companies on the other is heating up. Over the past few years there has been a marked increase in the persecution of websites and individuals involved in piracy. Democratic rights are being thrown overboard and the full force of the state applied in the media industry’s ruthless pursuit of profits.

Kim Dotcom – the IT millionaire that got raided by the anti-terror squad

One of the most curious episodes last year was the arrest of Kim Dotcom, a German multi-millionaire living in New Zealand. Dotcom was the owner of a website called Megaupload that was closed down for copyright infringement around the same time. The website allowed users to upload content and other users to then download it. The copyright holders complained that it was too slow to take down copyrighted content once it had been brought to Megaupload’s attention.

One early morning in January last year, at the behest of the American FBI, New Zealand anti-terrorist officers raided Kim Dotcom’s mansion. Armed with automatic weapons, dogs and helicopters they stormed the house and rounded up all its inhabitants, including children (video). The amount of force used was clearly out of all proportion.

Kim Dotcom was arrested in order to be extradited to the USA. Then the farce continued. First of all, it turns out the search warrant they used was illegal as it was formulated in a too general way. Then, it was revealed that the New Zealand secret police had been illegally spying on Kim Dotcom. During the hearing no one could explain why FBI agents were present during the raid of the mansion. Finally, the extradition hearing had to be postponed because the New Zealand court granted Dotcom the right to see the evidence that he is charged with resulting in that the US refused to present any evidence for the hearing.

Just before the raid on the mansion, all Megaupload’s servers in the US were seized. The data on the servers belonged to hundreds of thousands of individuals, many of whom were not committing any acts of piracy. Now the US authorities seem unable to determine what is to happen to the data or even it seems who is actually in possession of the servers.

The way that the affair has been plaid out shows how this is not a question of enforcing law but placating the media industry. Kim Dotcom himself points out how the raid was timed to coincide with the beginning of the fund raising season for the US presidential elections. The US government thus leaned on the judicial apparatus and the New Zealand government to do something. Undoubtedly there was political involvement at the highest level. The New Zealand state, being a loyal servant of US imperialism, did its duty. Only problem is that, when the whole thing is brought into the public domain, the shambolic way in which they had done it meant that they had to release Dotcom.

The Pirate Bay – a website that defied the industry

Pirate Bay HollybayThe harassment of The Pirate Bay website shows the involvement of the industry even clearer. The Pirate Bay is one of the most intransigent of all the BitTorrent (a peer-to-peer file sharing protocol) websites. BitTorrent is a peer-to-peer file sharing protocol. It makes it possible for thousands of users to share files between each other with remarkable ease using a little file called a torrent. Whilst quite a number of large sites that host torrents complied with court orders and threats, The Pirate Bay refused. They even listed their replies to various take down requests on their website, and they make for quite humorous reading (http://pirateproxy.net/legal or http://piratebay.org/legal). “Anakata”, whose real name is Gottfrid Swartholm-Warg, explained to the record companies that “Sweden is not a state in the United States of America” and that therefore “US law does not apply here”.

As it turns out, he was wrong. In 2006 Swedish police raided Pirate Bay servers, after the US had threatened trade sanctions against Sweden. This managed to close the site down for a few days. Two years later, four people involved with Pirate Bay were put on trial. All four were convicted with harsh sentences. Three of those were directly involved with PirateBay: Gottfrid Svartholm-Warg, Peter Sunde and Fredrik Neij. The prosecutor decided, however, in order to smear the website, to include a shady, well-known racist among the accused. The latter had, in the early days, contributed a free Internet connection and some equipment to the site. Without any shame, another well-known Swedish racist and record label owner, Bert Karlsson, used this to attack supporters of the site on his TV show.

Many of the people in the legal system who dealt with the case had links to the media industry. One of the police officers that worked on the case got a job at Warner Brothers. The judge who presided over the trial, it turns out, was linked to anti-piracy groups, even sitting on one of their boards, which he didn’t seem fit to disclose during the trial. Of course, on appeal, the judge was deemed unbiased. The trial was a bit of a farce with the prosecutor asking all sorts of irrelevant questions, for example to a professor who spoke in favour of the defendants, and miscalculating the revenues of advertising. The plaintiffs, all the major Swedish and international media companies, were also represented with some of Sweden’s top lawyers. It is entirely clear that this was an important test case for the media industry, attempting to close down one of the most successful piracy sites. All this is revealed in the newly released documentary TPB AFK.

It is worth mentioning in passing the anti-piracy agency Anti-piratbyrån. The agency represents major Swedish and international movie distributors and has been operating for some years now. It attracted controversy when it was revealed that it had illegally been registering ip addresses of people who were using BitTorrent. For these nice ladies and gentlemen of the movie industry legality is not the primary concern. Fortunately, for the companies concerned, the Swedish parliament a couple of years later gave agencies working on behalf of copy right holders an explicit exemption from data protection legislation.

Peter-Sunde-Gottfrid-Svartholm-Warg-Fredrik-Neij-flickr-texplorerPeter Sunde, Gottfrid Svartholm-Warg and Fredrik Neij Photo: TexplorerDuring the appeals process, Svartholm-Warg, Sunde and Neij left the country. Sunde returned to serve his sentence, but the other two remained abroad. An arrest warrant was issued but not much happened. Then, in March last year, one of the largest ever data thefts was revealed. This time from a private company that managed Swedish tax records. The whole thing seems very peculiar. Around a thousand social security numbers for people with hidden identities were stolen. Suddenly things start to move rapidly. In August, Svartholm-Warg was arrested in Cambodia under accusation of data intrusion and serious fraud. Within days, Cambodia extradited him to Sweden, in spite of not having any extradition treaty. There is every reason to think that the US government had a hand in this as well.

Upon his return to Sweden Svartholm-Warg gets interned in prison with extremely stringent conditions. He is banned from having access to the Internet and even after the ban is lifted, the prosecutor is given control of his communications. To this date Svartholm-Warg communicates with the public through his mother.

The whole case stinks of manipulation and an absolute determination from the part of the media industry and various states to punish anyone involved with piracy. Legality for them is a secondary matter.

Aaron Swartz – driven to suicide by the FBI for copying academic journals

aaron-scwartzAaron ScwartzNot only is the US pursuing foreign citizens in its war against piracy. The FBI drove one of the most famous internet personalities, Aaron Swartz, to suicide this January. Swartz really deserves a whole obituary on his own. He was only 26 years old but had already managed to be involved with the creation of the RSS specification (for RSS feeds), he co-founded Reddit, he helped set up archive.org, creativecommons.org, openlibrary.org and numerous other similar websites. Aside from that he also campaigned against SOPA and PIPA the Internet censorship bills, setting up the campaign Demand Progress. He was a central figure in the movement for open access to literature and culture on the internet.

What does the US judicial system do? Does it welcome and reward this champion of democracy and education? Obviously not. Aaron Swartz first got in trouble in 2009 for publicly publishing a number of court documents. These documents are supposed to be publicly available but the PACER system that is used to supply them is prohibitively expensive for anyone who wants to access them. The FBI opened up an investigation but decided against pursuing charges. He had already at this point acquired and, with the help of archive.org, published the complete biographical data of books held by the Library of Congress.

Then, two years ago, in 2011, Aaron Scwhartz was arrested at the university campus of M.I.T. charged with downloading articles from Jstor, the online database for academic journals. Swartz had over a period of time apparently downloaded 4.8 million documents to a portable hard drive using a laptop hidden in a computer closet. In order to catch the perpetrator, M.I.T. had gotten the secret service involved in the case as well as the local police. They subsequently claimed this was because they thought it was Chinese espionage but that seems far-fetched to say the least. Why would the Chinese with their huge resources attempt to replicate Jstor by putting a laptop in a closet on the M.I.T. campus? In reality M.I.T. was getting pressure from Jstor who wanted to put a stop to the downloading. Jstor obviously feared that someone would make all the downloaded journal articles public, thus disrupting the business of their partners in commercial publishing. This was probably precisely what Swartz was planning.

Once M.I.T. and Jstor figured out who it was that was downloading, they felt they could no longer publicly support the prosecution. After all, Aaron Swartz had become very famous through his advocacy of the open internet and his contributions to internet technology. They washed their hands of it in public. What they said behind closed doors is of course another matter. The US authorities took up the case and pursued it aggressively. They arrested him and charged him with wire fraud, computer fraud and unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer. He faced up to 35 years of prison and $1 million fines. As Ortiz the US attorney puts it, “stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar”. They did this in spite of the fact that Jstor no longer backed the prosecution. M.I.T. apparently continued to back it.

The case never went to trial. Swartz committed suicide on January 11. He had apparently been offered a six month prison sentence deal by the prosecution two days earlier. What tipped Swartz over the edge? It seems quite likely that the aggressive action of the US authorities was the final blow. They probably never intended for this to happen and subsequently had to issue a number of semi-apologetic statements. Yet, they were clearly determined to set an example.

It is clear that what Swartz was trying to do was to give access to Jstor’s articles to the whole of humanity. He didn’t want access to be restricted to some well-to-do academic institutions that could pay the huge subscription charges. Why this aggressive prosecution, particularly of such a public and well-respected figure? How come the secret service got involved in a simple case of data intrusion to the point of having an agent on the scene? The story about Chinese hackers is complete nonsense. The only way to make sense of it is to see it in the context of the war against piracy. It was part of an orchestrated campaign to enforce copyright on the Internet by harsh police measures and sentencing. It is also an attempt to bring tighter control of the Internet by the state.

The collusion of the police, the courts and politicians in the media industry’s war against piracy is a corrosion of democratic rights. In many ways it mirrors the extra-judicial way in which they dealt with “the war on terror”. At the time the Marxists pointed out that the increased powers of the state will be used against the labour movement. Here you can see how these same measures are being used on behalf of Hollywood and the record industry. Not only that, but, as we will explain in the second part of this article, it shows how capitalism is a huge barrier to development of technology and how socialism would be different.

Part 2 >