This week, some 50 million users may begin to permanently lose whatever it is that they stored on Megaupload, the massively popular cyberlocker site that was shuttered by order of the US Department of Justice. And not because they were infringing on copyright: the DOJ alleges some files on Megaupload were pirated movies, songs, and software, but the site was also home to far more mundane materials, from Web-site backups to family photos.
Nor are the files disappearing because they've been seized by the government. With its assets frozen, Megaupload can't pay the two companies it uses to store its customers' files — and as a result, those companies could begin deleting files as soon as today. If you were among the uploaders, bad news: Megaupload is working on a reprieve, but those files might be gone forever.
Now that an indictment has been handed down in the case, the DOJ asserts the government has no legal right to access the files, much less protect them. Absurd as it sounds, the government can get away with claiming that it has not technically seized the private property of potentially millions of users. It's a boondoggle of Kafkaesque proportions. At the same time, other filesharing sites are running scared, disabling their services before the government comes gunning for them, too.
But this situation isn't new, and it isn't unique. It's part of a pattern that is becoming more and more apparent: what people take to be public platforms turn out to be anything but, and our spaces for free speech are not necessarily so free.
As an ethnomusicologist who studies music's role in networking communities, my research over the past decade has oscillated between stumbling through a carnival of collective creativity and sorting through a disturbed graveyard, where Megaupload now joins Napster, imeem, and JamGlue, to name a few. Putting aside for a second the thorny issue of copyright infringement, all of these sites served as vibrant cultural ecosystems for a staggering number of scenes and publics, each gathered around a particular genre, movement, or medium.
As with its predecessors, the sudden shuttering of Megaupload leaves a whole lot of holes in the e-ther. One random example to tick across my timeline: a friend lost the only existing copy of a personal video his father had recently stored there. No doubt thousands of other innocent files have been lost, but none appear likely to get their day in court.
Why cyberlockers matter
On January 18, millions took note as Wikipedia and thousands of other sites went dark to protest SOPA and PIPA, the controversial bills pushed by the film and recording industries that would grant the government new powers to combat online copyright infringement. A public outcry ensued; the bills were — at least temporarily — derailed. Against this backdrop, the government's message in nuking Megaupload seems clear enough: we've already got enough authority to protect American Intellectual Property from foreign rogues, to censor the Web, to disappear files with as much due process as an enemy combatant.