Pirates: You Can Click But You Can’t Can Hide

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In a big publicity campaign targeting all types of media and even paying cinema-goers, in 2004 the MPAA warned torrent users that being anonymous online wasn't possible. You Can Click But You Can't Hide, their famous slogan read. Now, coming up for an unlucky 13 years later, nothing could be further from the truth.

mpaa-logoAt the turn of the century and just before Napster began to burn, a whole generation was turned on to the possibilities of Internet file-sharing.

With the music industry bewildered by the sudden and unauthorized transition to digital media via platforms such as KaZaA, another beast appeared on the horizon. BitTorrent had arrived and quickly became a painful thorn in Hollywood’s side.

By 2004, with hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of users frequenting both public and private torrent sites, Hollywood ran out of patience. With plans already being formed to target some of the larger US-based sites, the MPAA decided it was time to educate the consumer.

The ‘Respect Copyrights’ campaign launched with the now-common multi-faceted approach, with the MPAA first explaining what copyright is all about in a tone which by today’s standards seems a little old-fashioned.

“When some people hear the word ‘copyright,’ they think of a complicated legal term that doesn’t apply to them. In fact, copyrights touch us all. Simply put, copyrights protect creativity,” the MPAA said.

Of course, today’s audience is a lot more aware of what copyright is all about, but when it comes to the scare tactics deployed now and then, not much has changed.

“If you use peer-to-peer file-sharing services, you are almost certainly exposing your computer to harmful viruses, worms, Trojan horses, and annoying popups, and you are inviting strangers to access your private information. That makes it pretty easy for law enforcement to track you as well,” the MPAA warned.

Respect Copyrights campaign, 2004respect1

The idea that file-sharing in 2004 and 2005 wasn’t an anonymous activity was one that the MPAA was determined to drive home. As part of the larger campaign, Hollywood launched a sub-project which aimed to convince growing numbers of file-sharers that the Internet offered them no privacy.

The ‘You Can Click But You Can’t Hide’ campaign appeared to take its lead from comments made by boxer Joe Louis in 1946. When asked about upcoming opponent Billy Conn’s touted “hit and run” tactics, Louis said he might be able to run, but he wouldn’t be able to hide. The MPAA hoped the same would be true of file-sharers.

The subsequent campaign was targeted at young people at home, largely sitting in their bedrooms, together with students studying in the United States and further afield. Yes, you can download movies from file-sharing networks, the campaign said, but we can see everything you do.


To say that the ‘You Can Click But You Can’t Hide’ campaign wasn’t well received was a bit of an understatement. In addition to using emotive terms such as “trafficking” to describe file-sharing, it also tried to convince ordinary members of the public that sharing a single movie was very likely to result in a $150,000 fine.

Perhaps worse still, the campaign was also run as an advert in cinemas before movies. By default, that meant targeting paying customers in a way that the still current FBI warning does at the start of official DVDs and Blu-rays. That prompted the inevitable parody backlash.

Annoying customers…clickbutcantparody

However, the most remembered use of the campaign’s logo and message was on websites that had been shut down by the MPAA and FBI during 2004 and 2005. Perhaps the best early example was the appearance on popular public torrent site LokiTorrent which was shut down by the MPAA in 2005.

Previously, 28-year-old site admin Ed Webber told almost 700,000 users he was going to fight Hollywood’s lawsuit after accepting around $43,000 in legal battle donations. However, that money quickly disappeared into what was presumed to be the MPAA’s coffers. Were those donors and other site members going to be able to hide after they’d clicked?

The same questions were to be asked later in 2005 when the same campaign message went up on the busted EliteTorrents private tracker, a raid that resulted in several multi-year jail sentences for its operators and uploaders. In the end, no regular site users were ever punished, which certainly took some of the sting out of the campaign.

While its claims were still technically true for most people, as time went by the MPAA’s message began to look more and more dated. The campaign was eventually withdrawn but by then file-sharers were becoming acutely aware that anonymity is something you have to work for online. Then, in 2006, file-sharers were offered a solution, at a price.

Although not the first service of its type, the Relakks VPN service promoted by the Swedish Pirate Party was the first to be targeted mainly at file-sharers. Just a year after the MPAA’s campaign and for a small price, anyone could click whatever they liked and hide, pretty much completely.

Now, ten years later, protecting anonymity online is big business. There are hundreds of VPN suppliers, some VPNs are better than others, which ensure that there could never be a repeat of the MPAA’s “Click But Can’t Hide Campaign.” Nevertheless, plenty of people are still falling into its trap and failing to heed a decade-old warning.

Every month, millions of file-sharers are tracked online due to them using no kind of protection, with thousands receiving warning notices, fines and even lawsuits for their trouble. It’s surprisingly easy to both click and hide these days, but the majority still haven’t got the message.


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