Are Users to Blame When Pirate Site Admins Go to Jail?

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Who is to blame when torrent and streaming site operators end up in jail? Are they entirely responsible for their own actions or should site users take some of the blame? Former Pirate Bay spokesman Peter Sunde says that in prison some of the staff called him 'Jesus', because he was being made to suffer for their sins.

jailTo even get off the ground, file-sharing type sites need competent people behind them. A minority learn ‘on the job’ while others already have experience in parallel web projects. Either way, technical experience is an absolute must.

In one way or another, site operators also need to be able to handle finances. Sites don’t run on fresh air, so whether the aim is to operate a hobby-type platform or an ad-supported behemoth, keeping control of the purse strings is paramount.

But successfully bringing together the technical and financial aspects requires a third element, an element so important that a site may as well not exist without out it. Like other ‘AFK’ businesses – whether for or non-profit – sites need customers, or ‘users’ as they’re more commonly known.

In most torrent site environments (particularly in the public scene), these are the real powerhouses behind the site. Sure, the site admin and his staff provide and maintain the platform, but the majority of content is provided by the users and it is their bandwidth that provides the virtual infrastructure for the distribution. After all, an ant-hill without ants is just a pile of dirt.

To put it into perspective, many of the top torrent sites have a few staff but many millions of users. One such site, The Pirate Bay, grew so huge that it attracted the attention of authorities in every corner of the world. It’s worth repeating that the size of the target on the site’s back was directly linked to the number of users it had, not the size of its management team.

If TPB had just a couple of thousand users, few anti-piracy outfits would be interested – there are bigger fish to fry. But since millions of people decided to jump on board it meant that the site’s operators got the blame for everything those people did. And in the end they all went to jail, largely for crimes they personally didn’t commit.

So who is to blame for their incarceration? Arguments against copyright law aside, were Gottfrid, Fredrik and Peter the criminals for providing the platform? Or were their millions of law-breaking users, who insisted on sharing copyrighted content, the ones that should be shouldering the responsibility?

In a Finnish interview this week, Peter Sunde provided a small inkling of how he was perceived during his recent prison sentence. His comments are quite revealing in respect of how prison staff viewed his crime through the prism of what appears to be their own contributions to the infamous torrent site.

“The people who worked there called me Jesus, because I sat there for their sins,” Sunde said.

“It was totally sick. One is locked up in a room while signing autographs for those who lock one in. I do not think many people have experienced this situation,” he added.

It’s a curious situation indeed. There can be few hardcore file-sharing fans who wouldn’t grab an autograph, ‘selfie’ or two minutes lively discussion with Peter, Gottfrid or Fredrik if they had the chance, and few that wouldn’t sympathize with the jail sentences they received.

But how many of those same users sit around thinking, “I was partly responsible for those huge numbers cited by Hollywood during the trial. I contributed to the swarms, rampant sharing, and alleged industry losses. It was our crimes, the users, that put the admins in jail.”

Rest assured, in the case of Pirate Bay the founders wouldn’t place a second’s blame on any user, but it is food for thought. In most cases file-sharers go about their daily business without a care in the world, although some probably pause occasionally to scowl at the latest admin arrest.

It’s a fact that thanks to the millions of others in a similar position, torrent users remain largely safe, even though it is their actions that contribute most to the distribution of copyright content. That said, someone has to pay. Someone has to have their head stuffed on the end of a pike. Most are simply glad that the head isn’t theirs.

Likening Peter Sunde to a religious icon is going a bit far, but there’s little doubt that without the actions of the millions he aimed to serve, his life today would be minus a jail sentence. Not getting involved in the Pirate Bay might’ve helped him too, but not even Jesus himself could see that perfectly into the future.

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