Josh Butler • 20 January 2012

Popular file-sharing site Megaupload has been effectively shut down by US government officials, as the debate over online content rages on in America.

Officials from the Department of Justice and the FBI “seized the Web site Megaupload” on Thursday and charged seven people with “running an international enterprise based on Internet piracy,” according to the New York Times. Megaupload, once ranked as the 13th most popular site on the entire internet, is a site based on file-sharing,a “locker service” where people can legitimately upload files for others to easily download; it is also widely used for illegal music piracy.

Megaupload founders and staff are now embroiled in a grand jury indictment, with prosecutors claiming $500 million in copyright infringements and damages. Four of the seven charged were arrested in New Zealand – including the site’s founder – while three more are still being sought by police. According to the NYT, 20 search warrants were executed in nine countries, with over $50 million in assets and funds, and a number of domain names and servers were seized by investigators. The BBC reports Megaupload staff will be facing charges of copyright infringement, conspiracies to commit racketeering, copyright infringement and money laundering.

The Megaupload raids coincide with the US government’s push to restrict and control the flow of online content through its contentious proposed SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act) laws. However, officials state that the raids were ordered weeks ago.

Why Megaupload was targeted, while other similar sites including Rapidshare and Mediafire are used for similar music piracy purposes remain running, is unclear. What is evident, however, is that this may be the start of a new era in online communication, file sharing and content distribution. Illegal downloads have been accepted by much of the music industry; even welcomed in some cases, with many artists encouraging fans to download their material, focusing on remaining profitable through live performances, touring and special physical releases, rather than relying solely on profits from recorded music.

The US government is taking steps to combat online piracy – whether that be music, movies, television – but will it work? Larger companies such as Megaupload can be charged, bankrupted, swept away; but like it or not, underground blogs and websites will continue to proliferate pirated content; CDs can be burned and distributed; digital files can be copied and sent easily across the internet. What this is likely to do is simply push content piracy deeper underground and glamourise it, rather than dealing with the problem itself.

Only time will tell.