Saturday, January 21, 2012

What Megaupload Teaches Us About the Cloud, SOPA and Backups

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The raid and subsequent shutdown of file-sharing service Megaupload not only hacked off members of Anonymous, it also underscores one of the inherent vulnerabilities in storing data in the cloud.

Beyond just providing easy TV access to college students without cable, Megaupload and the other sites in its network helped encompass the largest digital locker service in the world. While we suspect that the majority of Megaupload users were not storing family photos and personal documents, the site was exceedingly popular with users.

Ars Technica reports that Megaupload consumed more bandwidth in corporate workplaces than cloud-storage and collaboration services like Dropbox and

Since the Megaupload shutdown, users with non-infringing content served on Megaupload’s servers have expressed outrage at no longer having access to their content.

According to the federal indictment, the data center that housed Megaupload’s servers had more than 1,000 different computers and contained more than 25 petabytes (25 million gigabytes) of data storage. That’s a lot of data.

The fact that Megaupload stored so much information — and for so many potential users — got us thinking about the bigger implications of the cloud, online storage and the rights of law enforcement.

Could a Service Like Dropbox Get TKO’ed Megaupload Style?

Although cloud storage and backup services have existed in various forms for well over a decade, few companies have managed to make the concept easy to understand and use. Dropbox is one of the few companies that has managed to present a concept — and a service — that is easy to understand and invaluable to use.

I’m a Dropbox Pro user myself and I gladly pay $99 a year for 50 GB of storage. I use Dropbox with Mashable colleagues, friends and family members. I also use Dropbox as a way to back up my music and video libraries. In most cases, these are files that I have digitally purchased or ripped from a CD. Still, the nature of Dropbox and its ability to easily share files with others means that hypothetically, I could share my Amazon MP3 library with someone else.

That opens up the question: If the district court could shutdown charge Megaupload and its employees with “conspiracy to commit copyright infringement” (amongst other crimes) and shut down the service (including access to non-infringing files), could a much more legitimate service like Dropbox be next?

Right now, the answer is “no.” Megaupload’s problems go far beyond the content its users uploaded to the service. The government case against the company and its employees alleges money laundering, trafficking and a blatant disregard for copyright, even in the face of takedown notices. A court will make the final determination as to the validity of these charges, but suffice to say this isn’t just about copyright infringement.

Moreover, current safe harbor rules don’t hold Internet services accountable for the the actions of their customers. In other words, if I commit copyright infringement by using Dropbox to share music and movies with my friends, Dropbox as a service isn’t liable for my actions (provided it kicks me off when presented with my misdeeds).

One of the major problems with the SOPA and PIPA legislation was the restriction of these safe harbor legislations. Web services — and even websites including Mashable — could be held responsible for the actions of users, even if the services themselves were unaware of those actions.

While SOPA in its current form is dead — or at is on hiatus — it’s important to remember that if it or similar measures pass, what has happened to the (few) legitimate users of Megaupload could happen to other services as well.

The Cloud Isn’t Always Forever

As I’ve read accounts of users who actually used Megaupload for work or personal file storage, I’ve been struck by two things.

Why would you choose Megaupload over Skydrive, Dropbox or YouSendIt? I mean, really.
The cloud isn’t a panacea or a total replacement for off-site backups.

This isn’t the first time that a cloud service has gone offline and taken user files with them, and it won’t be the last. In the mid-2000s, a rush of online storage services raced on the scene, only to go belly-up a few years later.

Cloud storage and online backup is a wonderful thing, but it cannot — and should not — be the sole backup solution for a person’s most important files and documents.

Instead, I advocate a combination of backup policies that combines local backup (preferably on a RAID setup) and cloud backups. For truly important files, an offsite local backup (in a firesafe box or safe deposit box) is also a great idea.

Even if you pay a service money for backup and storage space, disasters do happen. Proper backups at multiple locations is the best way to protect yourself from the pain of losing important files.

Also — if you’re using a service that is best known as a pirates paradise to store and transfer work or personal files — it might be time to switch to a provider with a bit less heat.


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