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Megaupload Reveals The Need For User-Based Internet Legislation

Eric is a veteran British tech journalist, currently editing ChannelBiz for NetMediaEurope. With expertise in security, the channel, and Britain's startup culture, through his TechBritannia initiative

Every cloud has a sinister lining or so the closure of MegaUpload and TV-Shack appears to indicate, writes Eric Doyle

The closure of Megaupload is no great loss to the Webosphere but the fact that a site can be closed down so readily raises a few questions on security. The laws being passed seem to favour the authorities at the expense of the Internet user.

To many users, Megaupload’s slick online marketing made it look like a good place to store their personal files and images for back-up or for sharing with friends and family. What they didn’t know is that their data was co-habiting with illegal material.

Friendly fire and collateral damage

The sudden disappearance of the site and their storage investment with it is already bringing howls of complaint because some people saw this as a repository for their data rather than a back-up. Subsequently, there will be many people who have lost files – almost certainly forever but, if not, for a year or so while the extradition and court hearing schedules are decided.

That the site was an important hub for illicit dealings seems apparent from research done by Arbor Networks. Jose Nazario, senior security researcher at Arbor, noted in a blog post, that there was a noticeable drop in global Internet traffic following the closure. Hundreds of gigabits of traffic disappeared immediately following the blocking of the site – probably as a result of film and music downloads being terminated, he implied.

Interestingly, the major traffic change was in Europe, a smaller but noticeable drop in the US and virtually no effect in the Asia Pacific region.

It makes me wonder why we need government legislation like the Digital Economy Act or the ill-fated Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) when, with international co-operation, the courts seem able to close whatever they want whenever they wish.

Apart from the arrest of some of the organisers of Megaupload in New Zealand, servers were ceased in Hong Kong. Surely, as well as making such actions easier, there should also be  regulation over how the closure is effected. To just bar everyone from accessing the files seems a bit Draconian and unfair.

If the servers are ceased, surely the authorities also have access to the personal details of the site’s depositors? Would it not be polite and fair to allow these users to plead for access to their files and only inconvenience the illegal uploaders?

No one is immune

If this were a co-tenanted business site it would all be handled very differently. There is no reason why a hosted cloud service could not be running illicit businesses – in fact, it is likely that drug cartels and Mafia-like gangs are using the Cloud and could be a neighbour of yours. If they are co-habiting with legitimate businesses on a server farm in the sky, is it not possible that the Feds would move in and shut the whole operation down by seizing the servers?

Even if it isn’t likely, there should be legislation to cover the eventuality to give everyone peace of mind.

Even the UK is not immune from US intervention as the recent closure of TVShack proved. By sharing links to illicit downloadable files, the site was committing no crime under UK law and yet the organiser Richard O’Dwyer is up for extradition. A similar case against a similar site, TV-Links, was thrown out of court in the UK two years ago.

Has the law changed in the meantime. No. But the US has laid claim to the non-country-specific domains – such as .com. This means that any business using these domains is answerable to the US authorities. A point that could have serious repercussions for the thousands of companies that have adopted these prime addresses and for any company hosting their systems on Cloud services with such a URL.

Even companies like BT.com are on a sticky wicket – upset the US and suffer the consequences.

The dark Clouds are gathering.