The Pirate Bay Four. MegaUpload’s Kim Dotcom. And now – according to the US authorities – alleged KickassTorrents owner Artem Vaulin.
Plenty of filesharing sites have been shut down or blocked by ISPs in the last decade, but on some occasions, the authorities have pursued the individuals accused of running them.
The Pirate Bay’s co-founders were sent to jail for their role in its growth, while Dotcom remains in New Zealand battling extradition to the US.
This week, Vaulin was arrested in Poland, accused by the US Department of Justice of “running today’s most visited illegal file-sharing website, responsible for unlawfully distributing well over $1 billion of copyrighted materials”.
The department’s announcement of the arrest added that KickassTorrents attracts more than 50 million unique visitors a month, and generates annual advertising revenues of between $12.5m and $22.3m. But for those of you who are unfamiliar with the site, here’s a primer on its history and past controversies.
KickassTorrents launched – or at least first came to prominence – in early 2009. It won praise within the filesharing community for its user-friendliness compared to existing piracy sites.
The site grew quickly: by February 2010, news site TorrentFreak was reporting that KickassTorrents (KAT for short) was the ninth biggest torrent site in the world, attracting more than 642,000 daily visitors. By the end of 2012, it was the third biggest, and in 2014 it overtook The Pirate Bay to take top spot in that list.
Recently, that site – which knows its torrent onions (dark web pun not intended) outlined the reasons for KAT’s success:
“Firstly, it’s a very good looking site while also being easy to navigate. It has a good search engine. It’s quick to load. In fact, it does everything one would expect of a good regular website. As a result it’s relatively rare to hear users complain.
And that brings us to the special sauce that few other sites in this niche can offer.
Largely thanks to the way the site is designed, KAT has developed perhaps the best torrent-based community publicly available on the Internet today. The site’s forums are buzzing with the kind of activity one used to see on dedicated file-sharing discussion platforms back in 2005. Most of those have long since died out but somehow the Kickass community is thriving with the same spirit a decade on.”
KAT has also been quick to implement new technologies on behalf of its users. In 2014 it added SSL encryption, for example, to keep their browsing habits more secure – not least from the rightsholders and anti-piracy firms trying to identify infringers.
In 2016, the site has also added the option to stream torrents as well as download them, and then launched on the dark web, providing users of the Tor network a way to access it even if KAT is blocked by their ISP.
However, KAT’s history is also a tale of increasing pressure from rightsholders and the authorities, right from the time in August 2010 when its original hosting provider in the Ukraine shut the site down, forcing KAT to move its servers abroad.
The site has regularly hopped domain names too, abandoning its original .com domain in 2011 and moving to a Philippines-based .ph domain, after the site’s owner(s) decided the .com was at risk of an imminent seizure by the US authorities.
Since then it has moved to .tt, .to, .so and .cr domains, as well as a short-lived (one day) sojourn on a .im Isle of Man-based domain. It’s not an uncommon phenomenon for a torrent site.
KickassTorrents has also been blocked by ISPs in Italy, the UK and Finland among other countries, with pressure on Australian ISPs to follow suit. KAT’s popularity has led to the creation of several proxy services dedicated to helping people get around these blocks, and then the recent Tor launch.
KAT has also been one of the torrent sites most obviously affected by Google’s much-discussed (by rightsholders) crackdowns on internet piracy.
Several times, KAT has been blocked by the Google Chrome browser on account of “harmful programs” on the site – the last time this happened in April 2016, Mozilla’s Firefox and Apple’s Safari joined the blocking party, which is arguably a bigger problem for the site than ISP-level blocks in individual countries.
Now, if Artem Vaulin is KAT’s owner, he faces a much greater threat, of course. He’s been charged in the US with one count of conspiracy to commit criminal copyright infringement, one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering and two counts of criminal copyright infringement.
With the legal process in motion, we’ll find out if the US government has any more success extraditing Vaulin than it has with Dotcom. And we’ll also find out whether KickassTorrents itself will survive – either in its current form or as multiple copies launched by community members – or join the growing ranks of shutdown filesharing sites.