Secrets of the Pirate Bay

Quinn Norton Email 08.16.06

MALMO, Sweden -- It's Saturday night and I'm lounging on a living room sofa surrounded by lanky twenty-somethings in shorts and deep tans. Across from me, a wire emerges from a green Xbox -- modified to stream movies from its hard drive -- and snakes past two dusty turntables and into a video projector, which is displaying a menu of movies that would make Blockbuster jealous.

Peter, this living room's owner, selects a title, and the text "For Your Consideration" fades onto the screen, marking this movie as a leaked screener from the Academy Awards: Someone in Hollywood ripped their review DVD copy of the film and uploaded it to the internet, where it eventually found its way to this hacked game console. Peter chuckles, others cheer.

Special Report: The Pirate Kings of Sweden
Secrets of the Pirate Bay
Efforts to sink the word's largest BitTorrent tracker have backfired into political scandal, and spurred even more downloading. But the three guys behind the Pirate Bay are facing a national controversy of their own.

A Nation Divided over Piracy
The Pirate Bay survives, and politicians and entertainment lawyers confront a youth movement that embraces file sharing. Who would have thought Sweden would end up the internet's free content haven?
[Coming Aug. 17]



The Evidence (.zip)
Did the Motion Picture Association ask Swedish politicians to illegally intercede with law enforcement? Read the docs and decide for yourself.

And barely a month after Swedish police raided their server room and carted two administrators and their legal help off in handcuffs, the lanky co-operator of the Pirate Bay -- the most popular and hunted piracy site in the world -- settles back to watch a pirated copy of Spanglish.

Harbored by a country where 1.2 million out of 9 million citizens tell the census that they engage in file sharing, the Pirate Bay is as much a national symbol as it is a website. Protected by weak Swedish copyright laws, the Bay survived and grew as movie studio lawyers felled competing BitTorrent trackers one-by-one. Today it boasts an international user base and easily clears 1 million unique visitors a day. New movies sometimes appear at the top of the site's most-popular list before flickering onto a single theater screen.

With its worldwide following, many here see the Bay as the devil on Sweden's shoulder, legitimizing contempt for intellectual property rights and threatening to saddle the country with a lasting reputation for international lawlessness. "It's very difficult to make people act legal when they've been doing something for some time," says Marianne Levin, professor of private law and intellectual property at the University of Stockholm. "In Sweden the debate (on file sharing) came very late."

So when, on May 31, Swedish police finally arrived with a search warrant and carted off enough servers to fill three rental trucks, the entertainment industry was quick to proclaim victory. The Motion Picture Association of America issued a press release announcing a milestone. "The actions today taken in Sweden serve as a reminder to pirates all over the world that there are no safe harbors for internet copyright thieves," trumpeted MPAA chairman Dan Glickman.

But the three stewards of the site -- 27-year-old Peter; Fredrik Neij, 28; and Gottfrid Svartholm, 21 -- were already preparing their response.

Coordinating with volunteers around the world in an IRC chat room, the trio scrambled to relaunch the Bay at a new location. Peter -- a slim, dark haired, dark eyed geek -- didn't sleep in those first few days, fielding a stream of phone calls from the press while confronting the technical challenge of resurrecting a high-traffic site with a partial database and all-new hardware. "They stole most of our backups as well," he says. "I managed to get some backups out of the servers while the police were in the building." (Peter wasn't arrested with the others, and remains anonymous.)

They took the reconstructed data to temporary hosting in the Netherlands, and three days after the raid, the Pirate Bay reappeared on the internet.

So fast was the Bay's rebound that some news articles reporting the site's demise went to print after it was back up, recalls Peter. The resuscitated site had a few glitches, but the resurrection was remarkable in that it had never really happened before; when the major American rights holders take a website down, it stays down. The pirates delivered a victory message to the MPAA, and the Swedish equivalent, APB, through the site's reverse-DNS, which now read: hey.mpaa.and.apb.bite.my.shiny.metal.ass.thepiratebay.org.

Thanks to the press generated by the raid, the Pirate Bay instantly became more popular than ever. The Bay's T-shirt vendor alone now has four people working full time to fill orders for apparel sporting the site's pirate ship logo, and a skull-and-crossbones with a cassette tape as the skull. "They are behind something like 2,000," says Neij. "They are working day and night."

The pirates have since moved the Bay's hosting back to Sweden, where they've built technological bulwarks against another takedown, law-hardening the Bay's network architecture with a system of redundant servers that spans three nations. Shutting down the site in any single country will only cripple the Pirate Bay for as long as it takes for its fail-over scripts to execute, a gap measurable in minutes.

The various servers' locations are obscured behind a load balancer configured to lie, the crew says. Once the failsafe is triggered, a determined adversary with an international team of litigators might be able to track down the servers, but by that time -- according to the plan -- the pirates will have deployed mirrors in even more countries. In theory, the corporate lawyers will eventually tire of this game of international copyright Whack-A-Mole.

With all that in place, crew member Fredrik Neij says he welcomes the possibility of another raid. "I really want the pleasure of it being down three minutes, then up again."

Next: Made in Mexico

The Pirate Bay was born in the late summer of 2003, in a plain motherboard box in Mexico with a slow radio uplink to the net.

Founder Gottfrid Svartholm was working as a programmer for a security consultancy on a one-year assignment in Mexico City, when he volunteered to help a Swedish file-sharing advocacy group called Piratbyran set up its own BitTorrent tracker. Svartholm's spare bit of caseless hardware wasn't meant to be extraordinary -- it was just meant to be a specifically Swedish site.

He chose the name Pirate Bay to make clear what the site was there for: no shame, no subtlety. These people were pirates. They believed the existing copyright regime was a broken artifact of a pre-digital age, the gristle of a rotting business model that poisoned culture and creativity. The Pirate Bay didn't respect intellectual property law, and they'd say it publicly.

It didn't take much for the nascent piracy site to saturate its 512-Kbps pipe, and for Svartholm's employers, the owners of the radio link, to start complaining. Fredrik Neij became involved in 2004 when Svartholm moved the tracker to Sweden and put it on a better connection. Peter joined soon after to help translate and grow the site.

For Peter, the project returned him to his formative years. As a child his mother took ill, and the responsibilities of caring for her took over most of his life. After he dropped out of school, he found the only place he could be a kid, and socialize as one, was Sweden's vibrant bulletin board and demo scene.

The modem was a lifeline for Peter, and he says he didn't understand for many years that much of what transpired on the boards -- swapping files, talk about hacking, and cracking copy-protected software -- were becoming serious crimes.

That his world of sharing and knowledge could be seen as prosecutable wrongdoing was a shock to his system, he says -- one that today informs his certitude that copyright enforcement is an assault on expression itself. "There is not a cause closer to my heart," Peter says. "This is my crusade."

As Peter worked to grow the site, Mikael Viborg became the Bay's legal adviser, explaining Swedish IP law to the crew over IRC. It was Viborg's legal advice that lead to the Bay's first defining feature: a gallery of threatening letters sent in by lawyers for movie studios, video-game makers and other rights holders, side-by-side with the crew's mocking replies. For Peter, that's when the Pirate Bay became part of a movement, and Neij is still obviously proud of the effort. "They are rude in a polite way," he says. "We are rude in a rude way back at them."

In the meantime, big media's method of polite rude was working in the rest of the world. The U.S. Supreme Court was reviewing the legality of file-sharing networks like Grokster and Morpheus, and would eventually rule against them. Challenges to copyright term extensions failed, the RIAA was suing file sharers by the thousands, and rights holders groups were pushing an aggressive public education campaign, equating file sharing to stealing. Impassioned pleas from movie makers and musical artists greeted a public that was increasingly getting the idea -- even if they didn't stop downloading, they were at least feeling guilty about it.

Against this backdrop, the Pirate Bay crested the world of file sharing through attrition. One by one, most of the peer-to-peer networks went away. (LimeWire, one of the few survivors, was sued by the RIAA last week.) BitTorrent tracker search engines fell next -- sites like Suprnova.org and Elite Torrents crumbled under legal threats and raids. The remaining few, including Isohunt and TorrentSpy, now have policies of removing torrents for infringing content upon request. They're being sued anyway.

That leaves the Pirate Bay as the lone civil dissenter. It neither operates in a black market nor lays claim to a loophole of international law. Like its progenitor organization, Piratbyran, the administrators of the Pirate Bay believe the law is wrong.

Next: Political scandal, and the Pirate Bay's buried treasure

But the attention it's garnered as a surviving piracy hub has not always been good for the Pirate Bay or its opponents, and both sides have recently been dogged by scandal in the glare of Sweden's media spotlight, pulling the sympathies of Swedes back and forth.

The Pirate Bay's jaunty image was blemished when a July 5 article in the Swedish daily paper Svenska Dagbladet revealed the site's hidden financial life for the first time. Posing as an internet firm seeking advertising on the Bay, the paper phoned Eastpoint Media, which sells banner ads for the Pirate Bay in Scandinavia. Eastpoint revealed to the reporter that they place 600,000 Kr of ads per month -- about $84,000 U.S.

Eastpoint takes 50 percent of that off the top, and part of the remainder likely goes to Random Media, a Swiss company that directly manages all the Bay's ad placements. But the implication of the report was clear -- a website ostensibly dedicated to a selfless ideal, and which solicits donations, was turning a tidy profit.

"The general perception is that they are doing something good ... they've always had this image, very ideological," says Tobias Brandel, the reporter who broke the story. If the Pirate Bay turns out to be a collection of businessmen profiting off of piracy via porn ads and online poker, it would lose popular support in the moralistic Swedish society. And if the Pirate Bay's crew is eventually convicted of copyright crimes "they will have a much harder punishment," says Brandel.

Scandinavia accounts for around 35 percent of Pirate Bay traffic, according to Peter. It's unclear how much additional money the site makes on ads sold elsewhere. And no one is saying where the ad money goes. Donations and profits from T-shirt sales go to Piratbyran, but ad sales do not. Peter declines to say more, on advice of the Pirate Bay's defense counsel.

This month Eastpoint released a statement saying it's terminating its relationship with the Bay.

The Pirate Bay's enemies might rejoice over the national controversy, if some weren't embroiled in a scandal of their own, centered on U.S.-led lobbying efforts that preceded the Pirate Bay raid.

The Swedish constitution erects a legal wall between politicians and law enforcement: The politicians can tell police what issues to emphasize, but not what cases to pursue. So questions emerged in June when leaked documents appeared in the Swedish media that showed entertainment lobbyists with the MPA -- the MPAA's international arm -- had explicitly pushed for political interference.

"As we discussed during our meeting, it is certainly not in Sweden's best interests to earn a reputation among other nations and trading partners as a place where utter lawlessness with respect to intellectual property rights is tolerated," MPA's John Malcolm wrote in a letter to Dan Eliasson, state secretary to the minister for justice. "I would urge you once again to exercise your influence to urge law enforcement authorities in Sweden to take much-needed action against The Pirate Bay."

The minister's office denies that it acted on the MPA's request, which would constitute the Swedish crime of ministerstyre. Law enforcement officials have agreed that they weren't subject to political pressure. But the timing of the raid is raising eyebrows. The letter from Malcolm is dated March 17. Eliasson replied on April 11, and the Pirate Bay was raided on May 31.

Whether politically compelled or not, the raid was undeniably aggressive. Swedish prosecutor Hakan Roswall directed police to seize nearly 200 servers -- everything at three locations of Svartholm's and Neij's ISP business, prq.se. The forensic work required to get through the gigabytes of seized data isn't expected to be complete before December.

Once the evidence has been analyzed, the pirates will face an uphill court battle, predicts legal researcher Viveca Still, a faculty member at the Institute of International Economic Law in Helsinki. "Pirate Bay is likely to be held liable for secondary copyright infringement," she says. "A good indication is a recent court decision in Norway, according to which linking to illegal content was contributory infringement." (Swedish courts can cite Norwegian precedent.)

But as the case unfolds, there is nothing preventing the Pirate Bay from continuing -- the raid was an evidence-gathering mission only, there's no court order against the site. That leaves it far from clear that the courts will shutter the Pirate Bay before the inevitable march of technology does the job itself. Once charges are filed, it could be many months before the trial starts. Appeals in the Swedish legal system aren't likely to be exhausted for three to five years after that.

By then, BitTorrent will no longer be the prime mover of pirated content online, says Neij. "The Pirate Bay will outlive its usefulness."

Coming Thursday:The Pirate Kings of Sweden

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