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Does the Megaupload takedown prove that SOPA is unnecessary?

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The logic behind Congress’ much-maligned online-piracy bills was that more weapons were needed to go after copyright infringers overseas. But last week, the U.S. government took down Megaupload, one of the biggest file-sharing sites abroad. Doesn’t that suggest new laws aren’t necessary?

Kim Dotcom and his co-defendants in the Megaupload case appeared in an Auckland court Monday., after all, wasn’t just any file-sharing site. It helped form the backbone for the argument that bills like the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) were utterly essential. Back in November, for instance, the Chamber of Commerce argued that “rogue websites — dedicated to the theft of American intellectual property — get over 53 billion visits every year.” Upon closer inspection, about 40 percent of those visits were due to just two entities: Rapidshare, a file-sharing site that courts have ruled perfectly legal, and Megaupload (along with its sister site, Megavideo). Which means that the Justice Department managed to take down a huge chunk of the rationale for SOPA without even needing SOPA.

Over at Ars Technica, Timothy Lee hosts an excellent debate on whether the Megaupload seizure proves that new laws aren’t needed. It’s very much worth reading. On the one hand, the U.S. government was mainly able to go after Megaupload because it was a .com — which meant that it fell under U.S. jurisdiction. A record industry official tells Lee that laws like SOPA are necessary to go after similar sites with foreign domain names like .ru. (Granted, SOPA wouldn’t allow the government to take down these sites entirely — it would merely provide tools to block U.S. users from accessing such sites and cut them off from U.S.-based ad networks and payment processors.)

On the other hand, Cato’s Julian Sanchez argues that the indictments against Megaupload’s founders did most of the important work here — old-fashioned law-enforcement work, plus cooperation with countries like New Zealand, helped take down the site for good. As my colleague Cecilia Kang reported recently, that’s raised the specter that other overseas file-sharing sites could be vulnerable to fresh crackdowns, even if they’re largely used for legitimate purposes. And, while it’s true that a site hosted in, say, China rather than New Zealand might be better able to evade U.S.-led actions, there are lots of reasons that, say, a file-sharing site wouldn’t want to locate itself in China, with its restrictive Internet rules.

This debate might seem a bit moot by now. After all, both SOPA in the House and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate have been shelved. Last week’s massive online campaign, which included a blackout by popular sites like Wikipedia and Reddit, appears to have scared lawmakers off for now. But online-piracy legislation will surely return at some point — D.C. lobbyists tend to be more persistent and inexorable than online activists — which means the broader debate about copyright infringement isn’t going away.

Update: New York Law School’s Asher Hawkins adds an interesting twist to this debate, wondering whether the Justice Department’s crackdown on Megaupload will hold up in court. If it doesn’t, presumably that would further inflame the debate around SOPA and PIPA.

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