Piracy and the policing thereof is a messy business, often without clear answers. Today marked a huge crackdown on top-level pirates, with several of the largest and most popular BitTorrent sites either down or offering only spotty access. It's hard to say exactly what happened, but here's what we know so far.
TorrentFreak reports that police in 14 countries across Europe launched a coordinated raid that may have been in the works for two years. Sweden, arguably the most pirate-friendly western nation, was hit in seven separate locations, including the PRQ headquarters in Solna. PRQ is perhaps best known for hosting WikiLeaks, leading observers to suspect WikiLeaks (which has angered several governments) was the main target.
In an email, PRQ said that five policemen (and a locksmith!) came to PRQ's headquarters, but were not allowed to enter the premises until PRQ's legal representative arrived:
"The raid was about the usual file-sharing crackdown, which they have each year, so not directed directly against PRQ or it’s customers. They (the police) just wanted to know who or whom had used two different IPs during a couple of dates in 2009. Since we did not have this information (no logging) there was no information and/or hardware for them to seize. The police did not enter the datacenter, only the office, so no servers or network have been touched by them. No information given or hardware removed."
PRQ later stated that the company did hand over the emails behind those IP addresses, but that "it's rare that our clients have mail addresses that are traceable." The company denied that the raid had anything to do with WikiLeaks, which was confirmed by Swedish prosecutor Frederick Ingblad in an interview with Swedish news outlet Expressen.se. Ingblad and his Swedish forces spearheaded the effort on request from Belgium.
Other targets hit included locations in The Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Germany, the U.K., and Hungary, with one notable target in the Czech Republic--a student dorm at Czech Technical University informally known as "Silicon Hill."
The police effort was far smarter than usual. Typically, raids are directed at individual sites like Oink, the British invite-only music-sharing site that was shut down a few years ago. That's the equivalent of yanking out a plant but leaving the root--new sites will invariably pop up, often with the exact same content as before.
This time, the raids were directed at what's known as the Warez Scene, or simply The Scene. The Scene is a loose network of pirates with no clear leader, structure, or headquarters that's responsible for much of the pirated music, TV shows, movies, and software that millions of users download. The Scene is especially renowned for its ability to crack any protected software--which is often much more valuable than music or video. Releases from The Scene are prized among pirates for their quality and rarity--if you find an album online months before its official release, or an expensive bit of software that comes with a pirated serial code, chances are it originated in The Scene.
So far, the raid seems to have been aimed mostly at securing information on particular IP addresses relating to The Scene, though Ars Technica reports that at least four people have also been detained.
The raids have had an adverse effect on some of the most popular and extensive BitTorrent sites. The Pirate Bay and BTJunkie have both been down for most of the day, mostly returning nothing but an error message. The Pirate Bay has been shut down before and always seems to spring back to life, but it's been out for an unusually long time today. Mediafire and Waffles.fm, among others, are also down. (A new favorite on The Scene, KickassTorrents, is still up and running.)
One interesting outlier is What.cd, the invite-only music site that took over from Oink. What.cd is down, sporting a cryptic message stating, "Theseus did it or something." Theseus was the founder of Athens, known as the great unifier, but how that might relate to a torrent site remains unclear. I've been told by insiders that What.cd was not a victim of the raid, but is instead down while the site administrators repair a routine (and unrelated) database corruption.
As smart as the raid was, it is unlikely to have any real, lasting effect on BitTorrent piracy. The BitTorrent world is a many-headed hydra. As soon as one head is cut off, another grows in its place. But it will certainly make it trickier for users to download pirated episodes of Mad Men for a while.