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A wild online ride hits the digital piracy wall
Question of the Day
WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND (AP) - On his way up, he fooled them all: judges, journalists, investors and companies.
Then the man who renamed himself Kim Dotcom finally did it. With an outsized ego and an eye for get-rich schemes, he parlayed his modest computing skills into an empire, becoming the fabulously wealthy computer maverick he had long claimed to be.
Now his wild ride may be over. Last month he was arrested in New Zealand for allegedly facilitating millions of illegal downloads of songs and movies through Megaupload, his once-popular website, now an important focus of the entertainment industry’s war on online piracy.
U.S. prosecutors are seeking the 38-year-old German’s extradition in what they say could be one of the largest copyright cases in history. Dotcom, who denies the charges, was freed on bail Wednesday after a month in jail, and authorities have seized, among other things, his twin giant TV sets, massive statue of the “Predator” movie monster and Rolls-Royce (vanity plate: GOD).
His story is one of breathtaking audacity that spans both the globe and the modern computing era. Interviews conducted by The Associated Press and a review of court documents and other records indicate that Dotcom was able to create a legendary past, trade upon it by manipulating the news media and avoid serious consequences when he broke the law.
Dotcom makes for a larger-than-life defendant in almost every respect: U.S. court papers describe him as about 1.95 meters (6 feet, 5 inches) tall and weighing 146 kilograms (322 pounds). At various times, he has depicted himself online as a playboy surrounded by beautiful women, fast cars and guns; a terrorist hunter and a technology martyr ready to commit suicide.
Now he is confined to his home, has refused through his lawyers to grant interviews, and is forbidden to log on to the Internet.
Born Kim Schmitz in the German coastal town of Kiel, Dotcom grew up with an alcoholic father. As a teen, he created a mystique for himself that led the Sunday Telegraph of London to call him a “superhacker.”
German hackers interviewed by the AP, however, say he did little of what he claimed.
“He was trying to make half a buck on every occasion offered him,” said Dirk Engling, spokesman for the Chaos Computer Club, which eventually banned Schmitz from attending any of their events. “Not having some real skills of his own, he was always using other people’s inventions to attack systems and then claim he did it.”
Engling said Schmitz ended up putting club members in legal jeopardy through his recklessness, but some wanted to work with him anyway because he radiated the social ease they lacked.
One of his first schemes, according to Engling, was selling pirated software from an online mailbox.
In 1998, a Munich court convicted Schmitz and an accomplice of computer fraud and of buying and selling stolen phone cards. They got off with a fine and probation for what the judge called “youthful foolishness.” Schmitz came to court wearing a black suit and sunglasses, saying he loved “feeling like a spy.”
Three years after his first conviction, he had resurfaced as a high-flying venture capitalist. He told reporters his company was worth $200 million and that he was rescuing the struggling online startup company “LetsBuyIt” with an initial cash injection of up to four million euros ($5 million) and a promise of another 50 million euros ($65 million).
Reporters published his bogus story, sending the stock skyrocketing. On the first day, LetsBuyIt leaped from 19 cents to 27 cents a share. The next day, it was up to 77 cents.
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