US Internet piracy case brings New Zealand arrests

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WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND (AP) - With 150 million registered users, about 50 million hits daily and endorsements from music superstars, Megaupload.com was among the world’s biggest file-sharing sites. Big enough, according to a U.S. indictment, that it earned founder Kim Dotcom $42 million last year alone.

The movie industry howled that the site was making money off pirated material. Though the company is based in Hong Kong and Dotcom was living in New Zealand, some of the alleged pirated content was hosted on leased servers in Virginia, and that was enough for U.S. prosecutors to act.

The site was shut down Thursday, and Dotcom and three Megaupload employees were arrested in New Zealand on U.S. accusations that they facilitated millions of illegal downloads of films, music and other content, costing copyright holders at least $500 million in lost revenue.

New Zealand Police also seized guns, artwork, more than $8 million in cash and luxury cars valued at nearly $5 million after serving 10 search warrants at several businesses and homes around the city of Auckland.

News of the shutdown seemed to bring retaliation from hackers who claimed credit for attacking the Justice Department’s website. Federal officials confirmed it was down for hours Thursday evening and that the disruption was being “treated as a malicious act.”

A loose affiliation of hackers known as “Anonymous” claimed credit for the attack. Also hacked was the site for the Motion Picture Association of America.

On Friday, New Zealand’s Fairfax Media reported that the four defendants stood together in an Auckland courtroom in the first step of extradition proceedings that could last a year or more.

Dotcom’s lawyer raised objections to a media request to take photographs and video, but then Dotcom spoke out from the dock, saying he didn’t mind photos or video “because we have nothing to hide.” The judge granted the media access, and ruled that the four would remain in custody until a second hearing Monday.

Dotcom, Megaupload’s former CEO and current chief innovation officer, is a resident of Hong Kong and New Zealand and a dual citizen of Finland and Germany who had his name legally changed. The 37-year-old was previously known as Kim Schmitz and Kim Tim Jim Vestor.

Two other German citizens and one Dutch citizen also were arrested and three other defendants _ another German, a Slovakian and an Estonian _ remain at large.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which defends free speech and digital rights online, said in a statement that the arrests set “a terrifying precedent. If the United States can seize a Dutch citizen in New Zealand over a copyright claim, what is next?”

The indictment was unsealed one day after websites including Wikipedia and Craigslist shut down in protest of two congressional proposals intended to make it easier for authorities to go after sites with pirated material, especially those with overseas headquarters and servers.

Before Megaupload was taken down, the company posted a statement saying allegations that it facilitated massive breaches of copyright laws were “grotesquely overblown.”

“The fact is that the vast majority of Mega’s Internet traffic is legitimate, and we are here to stay. If the content industry would like to take advantage of our popularity, we are happy to enter into a dialogue. We have some good ideas. Please get in touch,” the statement said.

Several sister sites were also shut down, including one dedicated to sharing pornography files.

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