Digital Pirates Search for New Venues Amid Legal Threats

March 15, 2012 Updated: April 8, 2013

The arrest of Kim Dotcom and the shutdown of his Megaupload empire came as a serious wake-up call to the file sharing community. It was a surprise not just because of the large crackdown on illegal downloads, but also because download services like Megaupload were viewed as the next stage of digital piracy—the castle they would all flee to once peer-to-peer torrents went down.

The end of file sharing through torrents has been a long time coming. These work through websites like The Pirate Bay where users can download torrent trackers and collectively download the selected content from each other.

 The problem with torrents—from the pirate perspective—is they expose the user’s IP address and companies who own rights to the content have regularly tracked the location of file sharers and sued them for the downloads. The amounts being talked about aren’t just the $12 or $30 you may pay for a movie, either. Some users have been sued for millions.

Joel Tenenbaum was among those hit hardest. He was facing a $4.5 million fine for downloading and distributing 30 songs through the KaZaA peer-to-peer network. A Boston federal jury ordered him to pay $675,000 in 2009, but this was reduced in 2010 to $150,000.

Hundreds of thousands of other users have been taken to court and slapped with smaller fines, typically around $2,000.

These cases have brought a cloud a paranoia over the community, and digital pirates already began searching for alternatives years back.

Many users were calling file download websites—such as Megaupload and RapidShare—the next stage of piracy. It seemed unlikely they would be targeted, since the websites often host both legal and illegal content, and have paid subscribers using their services to store and transfer private files.

One trait of these services is they often have limited file sizes, so digital pirates were uploading movies, software, and other content in various parts. They would get the download links from third-party websites listing the name of the movie or software and giving the download link for each part. People downloading the content would then use other software to compile the various files into their complete form.

Thus, the shutdown of Megaupload came as a shock, and similar websites have been scrambling to free themselves of illegal content to avoid the same fate. Last month, RapidShare slowed its download speeds to drive away pirates, according to TorrentFreak, one of the leading (albeit one-sided) sources on file sharing news. After the arrest of Kim Dotcom, others were trying to weed out illegal content from their servers.

Some users ran to private torrent networks—places where they could exchange files with other users with slightly less paranoia. But these sites have been unable to escape. Last month, the private BitTorrent website Swedpiracy.nu was taken offline, and its operators are being taken to court. Similar sites were warned to close down or be next, according to TorrentFreak.

One of the leading websites for illegal downloads, The Pirate Bay, recently did away with torrent files altogether, and has moved to magnet links. These are different from torrent links in that their associated files are not connected to any specific website, rather, they connect users directly. While this doesn’t spare the users from legal threats, they relieve websites hosting the links of some legal threat since they no longer need to store torrent files on their servers.

Magnet links are slow-coming on other websites though, and given that The Pirate Bay is currently in hot water over its illegal content, whether they make a difference has yet to be seen.

As things stand now, digital pirates concerned about security and avoiding legal threats are moving to smaller communities that use private or encrypted networks. One of them is FTP servers, which often require a direct invite (since usernames and passwords are needed to access them). The other is private, encrypted file-sharing networks that users need to establish amongst trusted contacts—such as with RetroShare.

 Yet the shifts in file-sharing all carry a common thread. The networks are either invite-only or require users to establish their own networks. Given that obtaining illegal content, such as movies still in the theaters or games before their official releases, requires access held by a select few, illegal downloads of this type of content could soon be a thing of the past as users are forced into a circle of friends limited by what the others have purchased.