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Swiss startup goes to DC

December 27, 2010

After being named as one of the most infringing websites, RapidShare is headed to the US capital to convince American lawmakers that it is not liable for illegal file-sharing.

American capitol building
RapidShare is one of three European sites lobbying DCImage: AP

RapidShare, an online file-sharing site based in Cham, Switzerland, is under increased international scrutiny for enabling copyright infringement, as earlier this year members of the US Congress named RapidShare one of the top six most infringing websites in the world.

"As you can imagine, we're not very happy about that," said Daniel Raimer, a German attorney and spokesman for RapidShare, in an interview with Deutsche Welle.

Following the US government's crackdown on infringing websites earlier this fall, seizing the domain names of more than 80 websites, RapidShare has found a way to reinvent itself in the American capital.

Just last month, the company hired the Washington, DC-based lobbying firm Dutko to protect its interests abroad. This likely makes it the first such European file-sharing company to lobby American lawmakers.

The company says its has more appointments coming up on Capitol Hill, and remains confident that it will get off the list by early 2011, long before next year's list is published.

Illegal download graphic
The Swiss company only says about five percent of what is uploaded to its site is illegal

Only a small percentage of its files are illegal

RapidShare estimates that copyrighted music and movies make up roughly five percent, or 10,000 of the 400,000 files uploaded every day.

Although the site accepts and hosts every type of file, because the company takes many steps to filter out infringing files before they are posted, Raimer argued that RapidShare is not the type of site the US should be going after.

"We believe that it's unfair that we're being put on the list," he added.

"You can't just take a look at the number of infringing material that you can find on the server. Google has probably millions and millions of links to illegal files. Most people would probably agree that Google is not a bad company."

By international law RapidShare is not liable for what users upload and download, and recent German and American legal cases have upheld this notion. The only thing that is required of RapidShare is to take down infringing files once the copyright holder tells it to.

While lobbying on behalf of foreign companies is nothing new in Washington, it is new for foreign Web companies to do so. An online database of lobbying disclosures reveals that the only other European websites lobbying the US Congress right now are two online gaming sites, PokerStars.net and PartyGaming.com.

US can exert limited power over foreign sites

A new anti-piracy bill making its way through the US Senate could clear the way for the government to seize more infringing domains.

According to most international law, RapidShare is not liable for what its users upload to the site and then download to their music playersImage: picture-alliance/ Godong

If the law passes, according to Bob Brauneis, professor of copyright law at George Washington University in Washington, DC, it could certainly impact RapidShare, despite the fact that it is not based in the United States.

"Dot-com companies operate around the world, but the company that controls the dot-com domain is in the United States," he told Deutsche Welle.

"Literally they have a computer in some room somewhere and if you flip a switch on that computer than domain name will disappear. The information is still there in Switzerland, but it's not accessible at RapidShare.com because the link between Rapidshare.com and the Swiss computers has been cut.”

The .com registry is maintained within the US and is subject to US law. That means a court order could force the registry to freeze the domain name: Rapidshare.com. It doesn't matter if RapidShare has its headquarters in Switzerland or anywhere else.

While losing a domain name could temporarily impact the company's business, changing to a new name is not a huge inconvenience.

RapidShare could just set up shop as RapidShare.ch, which is the most common suffix for Swiss sites. WikiLeaks, for example, used to have a .com suffix - now anyone can access that site at Wikileaks.ch.

If seizing domains doesn't stop copyright infringement, there is another step, Brauneis added.

"The computers in Switzerland are actually reached through a series of numbers called an internet protocol address, an IP address," he said.

Swiss flag
RapidShare could avoid American law simply by changing to a Swiss domain like RapidShare.chImage: dpa

"So everyone can spread around the world what the IP address is on those computers and they can continue to upload and download files, not a problem. And if it turns out that after seizing a bunch of domain names, everyone is just turning to IP addresses - the IP addresses may be next."

And it gets even more complicated from there.

Data re-routing could drive up Internet connection pricing

"People are going to look for alternative ways of having those kind of sites available," said Peter Eckersley, a digital rights advocate with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit organization based in San Francisco.

However, he cautioned that if sites like this are forced to move offshore, then that may raise the actual cost of Internet connections around the world.

"And the effect that will have is a significant increase in the amount of data that's just moving over international fiber links," he added.

"That will mean we'll need to build more fiberlinks. And it's going to make the cost of running the Internet higher."

Author: Emily Friedman, Washington, DC
Editor: Cyrus Farivar