Last month, an uproar surrounding the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect IP Act (SOPA/PIPA) managed to divert the course of government constriction of internet freedom with a groundswell of popular public opposition. Both bills lost support and were effectively halted in Congress, and the clash ended with only one high-profile casualty in this cultural skirmish, as the domain names operated by Megaupload Unlimited, whose holdings included the massive file-sharing site Megaupload.com, were seized and summarily shut down by the United States Justice Department.
The event marked one of the most significant debates we’ve yet seen surrounding information transmission in the new century, and brought interrelated issues of online speech and commerce into national and worldwide political discourse. The internet rallied around Megaupload, with online protests against SOPA and PIPA quickly leading to e-vigilantism. The Justice Department’s website, among others, was taken offline by a series of coordinated attacks by hackers as part of the web collective known as Anonymous, and in the ensuing weeks Megaupload’s founder, the larger-than-life figure known as “Kim Dotcom”, has become the subject of broad media examination and some online celebration.
Dotcom, a German-born computer programmer and businessman, founded Megaupload in 2005, shortly after completing his probationary sentence for insider trading and embezzlement convictions. That’s not exactly the sort of altruistic figurehead for economic justice that so many would prefer to see rise to prominence in the “Occupy” era. And to make matters worse, recent weeks have brought to light a stream of outlandish snapshots from Dotcom’s positively Scarface-esque lifestyle. Pictures have circulated of Dotcom proudly tastelessly showing off everything from large weapons to luxury cars, personal yachts to scantily-clad female companions. Everything, right down to his, *ahem*, robust physique simply screams of capitalist excess.
And therein lays a curious irony: The egalitarian ethos purported by those internet legions so outraged by the demise of Megaupload is, by all accounts, the exact opposite of the blinged-out, ultra-rich-Elite persona represented by its founder. Certainly, activist sentiment in recent years has leaned away from proudly gratuitous gestures of obscene wealth. Yet amidst the blurring effects of the Internet Politic echo-chamber, it’s become nearly impossible to reconcile standing for a consistent set of morally justified standards for e-living. We may not want to face the truth that to support free data depositories like Megaupload is to financially support Dotcom’s general grotesqueness, but it turns out that internet freedom not only isn’t cheap, it’s actually making a killing and buying mansions in New Zealand.
This isn’t the first time that the human face behind a recent internet cause célèbre has been revealed as somewhat uglier than perhaps we’d hope. WikiLeaks’ efforts to bring transparency to every level of governments’ actions were based on the combined work of many within their foundation and subsidized by anonymous whistleblowers all over the world, but the organization did have a single personality out in front for the media. Julian Assange made a handsomely heroic figure for the anti-establishment set, a self-styled journalist in the brave new frontier of media who never hesitated to go toe-to-toe with the powers that be. And he looked and sounded good on TV to boot.
That’s why news of Assange’s arrest in England for alleged sexual misconducts in Sweden stung so many of us so badly. An articulate idealist who ably represented an un-seen side of the information wars was caught up in an image-desecrating mess that had nothing to do with his politics. This wasn’t mainstream political sphere painting him as a digital terrorist/James Bond-style villain for his professional work with WikiLeaks, Assange stands accused of some serious wrongdoings that are entirely personal in nature. By all accounts, Assange’s off-the-clock behavior has been powerfully leveraged against him, placing him under house arrest and out of play, and in the process done some possibly irreparable harm to both his own image and that of the Wikileaks Foundation.
In the cases of Assange and Kim Dotcom, the mainstream wing of internet activism has remained staunch in support of their causes, even if that’s meant sometimes conveniently ignoring the unsavory aspects of either man’s character that inconvenience the narratives at play. And it’s not the worst thing in the world, I suppose. But it does mean that a nagging fact will remain plainly visible at the edges of every debate over the future of the internet: that the argument that proponents of freedom online are miscreants who selfishly stand in a moral gray area to make their points isn’t entirely unfounded after all.