Interpretative Flexibility of File-Sharing Websites

by Victor Starostenko, Kate Hsiao, Peter Nguyen

Last January, the New Zealand government took down Megaupload, a file-sharing site founded by Kim Dotcom, since the site was found guilty of disseminating copyrighted materials and committing racketeering. A year after the closing, Dotcom launches a new version of the site called Mega, which now encrypts files on users’ computer before they are uploaded, so files on Mega will not be able to be read by anyone, including government officials when conducting investigations.

Whether this new site would be successful we do not yet known. However, it is interesting to see these kind of file-sharing websites as an artifact of social construction of technology. As the model Bijker proposed, each artifact has different meanings and interpretations among relevant social groups. Megaupload was originally designed for file storage and viewing. Families separated by distance could share photos, collaborators on a project could quickly collect all the pieces together. Personal use such as storage and backup were also widespread. However, free riders took this opportunity to use the service for illegal distribution of copyrighted materials, which provokes the copyright owners and multimedia producers. It seems that the site then started to take on two personalities: a “cheerful and useful one” and an “evil and redundant one”.

Let us not go into the question of law at this time. The design and the function of the site also respond to the article “Does Artifacts have politics”. Whether the site itself was designed for good or bad can not be ascertained. Nevertheless, how the artifacts created by these actions are developed only reflects the interpretation of certain relevant groups.

“A problem is only a problem when there is a social group for which it has the meaning of a problem” (“The social Construction of Technological Artifacts”, p43). In our discussion of MegaUpload we first have to determine the artifacts, we then have to specify the relevant social groups, and finally, the problem each group experiences with respect to that artifact. By reading Wiebe Bijker’s article we see that a problem existing in one social group may not be bothering another relevant group at all. We also see the opposite. If we look at the artifacts created by MegaUpload we see that the problem of illegal sharing by one social group does, in fact, bother another social group that stands against such acts. The issues that arose from this conflict quickly escalated, which lead to one artifact to become more relevant than the other.

There are two apparent artifacts that stem from discussing a file sharing service of MegaUpload. One deals with legitimate file sharing among different and users and groups of users. MegaUpload is viewed by these groups as a perfectly usable collaborative service that helps users complete tasks faster. It offers the most space and reaches the largest market share (1 billion users and 4% of internet traffic). Because these groups do not deal with copyright issues it is not much of concern for them. This is an example of a positive artifact. The other artifact deals with the fact that MegaUpload quickly became a hotbed for illegal dissemination of copyrighted material. This created disturbances between the groups that value copyrighted material and ones that abuse the copyright. The meaning given to this artifact was one of malice and prohibited behavior.

There are several groups that interact with Megaupload or find it useful for different reasons. The first such group is legitimate users who use Megaupload to back up personal files and to share files with clients and as a collaboration tool. It is also widely used in the open source community, and the second relevant social group comprised of Android developers, who argued that Megaupload was “one of the best ways to distribute [software] … There are a number of similar sites for this use, but Megaupload was always the fastest”. Next, we have a group that includes other web organizations in file sharing business. The next three social groups closely relate to the second artifact discussed earlier. These are the distributors of the copyrighted material, the consumers of this material, and individuals who are against illegal sharing of copyrighted materials (government, music and film industry, artists).

The artifact of illegal dissemination was the one of controversy and in the end sparked the most attention and created disturbances between the social groups. The dominant meaning of the artifact was established, but was there consensus among the different social groups? It seems that some of the social groups had a lot more power to make that decision. It was clear that illegal practices would not be tolerated for long. Because Megaupload was not willing to change it was shut down by the government.

The question remains: When (or will) there be closure? Megaupload, like the VCR, Internet, DVD Burners, and Torrents; have contributed a great deal to the formation of internet communities, but this was due to the PEOPLE that utilized the technology. In a 205 lecture, I recall learning about how pirates and hackers are the first to use most technologies. It isn’t until artifacts are socially negotiated that they achieve closure. Thus, they may never fully achieve closure; having merely stabilized in uses.

This “interpretative flexibility” is important in determining a technology’s role in culture. Megaupload could’ve been used for only educational purposes, but pirates and hackers made it a breeding ground for intellectual copyright theft. In the same way, people who use VCRs and DVDs to make bootleg copies “misuse” their technology. Others use the technology to tape educational shows for their children. How do we keep these technologies accountable?

The FTC regulates how commercial websites must operate to protect its customers. This is one way, but not the only way for a website to become more legitimate. What about using tools that limit access to the information, legal or not, to only people sharing it? Does hiding and distancing itself from the fact that information that is shared is of illegal nature make the company liable? We will see how this plays out with the “new” MegaUpload dubbed: Mega.


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