Piracy means never having to say you're sorry.
That might as well be the mantra of Kim Schmitz, better known as Kim Dotcom, the most flamboyant internet character this side of John McAfee.
For those who've missed this story so far, until about a year ago Kim Dotcom ran a wildly popular site called Megaupload from his New Zealand mansion. Megaupload allowed people to upload massive files – you know, like movies and TV shows the uploaders don't own and don't have the right to share. Which probably explains both the site's wild popularity, and the Justice Department's prosecutorial zeal.
Things were going great until local authorities raided the joint, arrested him and shut down the site on behalf of the United States, which has charged him with 13 criminal counts of conspiracy, infringement and wire fraud. The upshot of the indictment is that those uploads amounted to piracy, and Megaupload was enabling it.
But since then, things have not gone smoothly for the feds.
A New Zealand judge ruled that the police had acted illegally – executing overly broad warrants – as the US Justice Department's long arm of the law in the raid by 76 officers (that's just three fewer bodies than the 79 Navy Seals sent to take down Osama bin Laden.) As the AFP reported at the time, Judge Helen Winkelmann ruled that “the police relied on invalid warrants when they searched the properties and seized the various items, the search and seizure was therefore illegal.”
Some researchers actually posited that total box office receipts actually went down when Megaupload was shut down.
These days, Kim Dotcom is out on bail.
On January 19 – a year to the day since Megaupload was squashed – Kim Dotcom launched Mega, which does the same thing but better, because now you can encrypt your files and only you hold the key. Cloud storage services like Google Drive, Dropbox and Microsoft's SkyDrive are password-protected, but if that one lock is picked then the contents of your vault are compromised. Not so if every document is encrypted with a key nearly impossible to guess. Indeed, offering encrypted cloud space could indemnify Dotcom from the legal consequences of users storing copyrighted material on his servers – he doesn't know what it is, and can't, the theory goes.
By creating Mega, DotCom is suggesting that cloud services are imperfect repositories because they don't afford the people who use them the power to keep to themselves whatever they store in them.
Password-protection only goes so far, but if someone gains access to your space – or a government issues a warrant that the cloud company decides to honor – your stuff is their stuff. Encryption is a form of document protection that makes it a practical impossibility for anyone but the person who holds the unlock code to ever decipher it.
And why shouldn't we have that? Why shouldn't privacy expectations extend to the cloud in the same way that we assume them to be on our computers that we keep in our physical possession?
Since every new business needs a launch event, Kim DotCom decided to put on a show that made Qualcomm's CES keynote seem like a poetry reading. For those of you who weren't invited and have 1:14:07 to spare, I urge you to watch the proceedings, as shared by Kim DotCom on YouTube. There was a re-enactment of the raid – which had been dubbed “Operation Takedown” – complete with helicopter assault. Native dancers and other performers warmed up the audience on a huge stage backdropped with a multimedia screen of the sort you'd expect to see at an Apple product unveiling. This all occurred in his mansion's driveway.
Given the fact that he's a rather self-indulgent self-promoter and, in the words of Wired, “The Most Wanted Man on the Net,” Kim Dotcom may not be the world's best evangelist for this particular cause. But putting aside all of Dotcom's ego, he's making a valid point.
There are any numbers of not nefarious reasons you would want to protect the contents of your digital stuff the same way you can on your computer. Trade secrets; sensitive information that might fall into the wrong hands if your computer does, like passwords and financial data; or, just because you are the sort of person who even shreds old grocery shopping lists.
But you don't have physical possession of things you store in the cloud. And there is a huge push to make the web your hard drive: this is the strategy Google is pushing with Drive and its Chromebook line of netbooks. SkyDrive is now built into the latest version of MS-Office. Cloud computing is ushering in a new era of less expensive laptops and non-traditional computers like smartphones and tablets.
We shouldn't have to sacrifice security and peace of mind to take advantage of this important trend. All the big players are pushing us into the cloud, but we shouldn't go all in unless we are afforded the same kind of protections that we have here on earth.
The messenger may be preposterous, and Kim Dotcom's motives may not exactly be altruistic, but he's in the right.
Just as pornography helps to preserve free speech, Kim DotCom is striking a pose that we all have a stake in protecting.
And like the old saying goes, only Nixon could go to China.
John C Abell writes about tech, business and politics.