But in targeting Megaupload, the entertainment industry and its government enforcers have once again used a blunt tool where a scalpel was required. After all, Megaupload was just the most-recognizable brand in an industry that seems to generate new entrants every other week, from longtime players such as RapidShare and MediaFire to up-and-comers like Hulkshare and FileServe. (It's a niche that Internet giants are quickly horning in on, with far more restrictions — Apple, Google, and Amazon have all unveiled cyberlocker sites in the past year. Meanwhile, DropBox, a cleaned-up cyberlocker site invented by a Boston guitarist, was recently valued at nearly $4 billion.)
Cyberlockers have, for better and worse, become a contemporary cornerstone in the unprecedented democratization and deprofessionalization of popular media. Beyond unauthorized uses of copyrighted works, cyberlockers facilitate a wide array of cultural exchanges. Professionals and amateurs alike use cyberlockers for private acts of collaboration, for publicly circulating their own works, or for searching, storing, and sharing otherwise obscure or inaccessible media for themselves and others.
What some cynically brand "user-generated content" or the arrival of "Web 2.0" actually bears witness to a profound shift in how culture is produced. Increasingly, the videos we watch, songs we listen to, memes we carry, and projects we kickstart are not the fruits of multimillion-dollar investments by large production companies. Rather, they represent the fluorescence of a participatory culture, as we transition from broadcast-dominated media into a decentralized, peer-to-peer environment. Looking around the Web and the world, it's hard not to behold a pervasively playful attitude toward popular culture — and toward the act of copying. Indeed, the imbrication of global youth culture and digitally remixed media means that such practices are, we might hope, irrepressible.
Ironically, the rise of Megaupload and other cyberlockers in today's online ecosystem is a product of aggressive copyright enforcement: when people can't share in the open, they do so in the dark. But cyberlocker sites are often an ephemeral, ad-riddled, and disorienting environment, where users frequently find themselves clicking on links designed to trick them, or watching a slowly ticking clock try to sell them a premium account, or worse. We underwrite so much of our collective curation and circulation with dubious partners: pop-up ads, porn, pirated schlock. Popular culture is being remade in an age of social media and networked publics, but the most popular "platforms" for our individual and collective creativity are not the public resources we might imagine or hope them to be. Is this really the best we can do?
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In his recent book The Googlization of Everything, Siva Vaidhyanathan argues that the degree to which we rely on private corporations to communicate and collaborate with each other amounts to no less than a "public failure." Instead of organizing ourselves to develop public platforms to house our artifacts and host our conversations, we outsource the work to giant corporations and sleazy fly-by-night operations.
Megaupload's seizure, as well as Wikipedia's blackout, bring into stark relief what Yochai Benkler describes as the "battle over the institutional ecology" of our increasingly networked, digitized, and media-suffused world. Interpreting the events of January 18 and 19, Benkler sees a desperate and dangerous strategy on the part of the MPAA. "In order to achieve effective enforcement in a global digitally networked environment," he writes, "Hollywood seems destined to try to draw an ever-larger set of platforms and actors into the risk of potential copyright and near-copyright liability."