MELBOURNE, Australia—There's a feeling that comes when you're in the middle of the hunt and suddenly you realize you've got the upper hand and your prey knows it. It's an unforgettable sensation of exhilaration borne of the taste of blood, and I could feel it emanating through the phone as I spoke with Robert King on Monday during the start of a three-hour call that was beginning for King somewhere around four in the morning, Melbourne time. Yeah, he was beat but he was far from beaten.
To the contrary, King's prey are digital file lockers and he had them on the run. Actually, has is the operative verb tense. With an estimated 40 lockers having already been shorn of their ability to process using PayPal—including 13 in one day—and with hundreds more in his sights, the 45-year-old Australian businessman (and grandfather of one), whose nearly 20 years of experience online has eminently prepared him for this marathon battle, seemed keenly aware that the last thing he can do now is let the pressure off.
Not that the AdultKing, as he is known online, would ever consider such a thing. There is only one reason that the pro-pirate site TorrentFreak dubbed King an "One Man Army" in an article from last week that became a cause célèbre immediately upon publication. It was because of King's singular determination to actually do something about the massive amount of digital piracy that occurs on file lockers hosted around the world, and especially on the ones that incentivize the uploading of infringed content—music, movies, games, software and, yes, porn—by paying uploaders when people download their content through premium memberships or by means of an affiliate program.
During our talk, King explained in detail the genesis of his efforts, which are focused on cutting off the money supply to the lockers by putting pressure on payment processors to stop transacting for them. He also described the methodology he and his small team had devised and were constantly honing, and talked in as much detail as he could about plans to structure the system going forward so that it will be able to continue to function with increasing efficiency without falling apart due to infighting, outside interference or through legal or other threats.
In the short day and half since our long talk Monday, in fact, King has already announced the rollout of the new entity, Copy Control Pty Ltd., which will be based in Melbourne, though its reach in terms of participants and purpose will remain global in scope. During a shorter call Wednesday afternoon, he sounded extremely pleased to have the new entity up and running, as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders, which in a sense it had been. Though the initial battle is far from over, and King remains an essential actor in the process, he realized shortly after starting the campaign to kill the lockers on June 25 that the three- and then six-month windows he envisioned for the fight would not cut it, and a more organized, independent and collaborative structure would need to be put in place.
"To that end," he told me Monday, "we are building a collaboration system which is like an in-the-cloud team room, with different apps that allow us to collaborate at different levels so that anyone who we trust who wants to become involved can become involved in shutting down file locker sites. And within that team room environment, there will be automated systems for running link analysis on a site, having the link analysis tell a person whether or not it's a suspect site, then the site can then be referred for further investigation, tasks and timelines can be set, and performance can be measured by setting performance standards and performance reporting."
As ambitious as that all sounds, the entity now exists after a few days of intense work that included no small amount of input from lawyers, with final details being ironed out Thursday in Melbourne. "Today," he told me just before ringing off on my Wednesday, his Thursday morning, "I'm concentrating on the fine details of the corporation and the collaboration project, and then from tomorrow we start slaying again." On Saturday, he added somewhat mischievously, another large announcement is expected.
That can hardly be good news for the hundreds of small and large file locker services that are now well aware of a man called AdultKing, whose efforts in just a few short weeks have been so successful that he can now safely be said to be Pirate Enemy #1, as misplaced as that moniker may be. The cold fact is, King is not the person making the decisions to cut off transacting for file lockers. That privilege rests solely with PayPal and the other processors with whom King has established a relationship and to whom he submits reports of alleged violations of acceptable use policies, just like anyone else on the planet can do. And he is quick to point out that PayPal investigations into some of the larger lockers were probably underway by the time he came on the scene. But he is equally sure his persistence has spurred more investigations, and that, perhaps more importantly, he has helped educate a few of the processors about some of the more subtle intricacies of the file locker business.
At the end of the day, if AdultKing can be accused of anything, it is being obsessively diligent in the accuracy of his reporting. This is not because he is anal, though he may well be, but because he knows that a company of the magnitude of PayPal, which conducts internal investigations based on submitted reports, is equally determined to protect its brand and will terminate merchant accounts only as a last resort. His apparent success, therefore, seems to be a direct reflection not of his muscular intolerance for content theft but his ability to accurately reveal alleged violations, though one no doubt fuels the other. That the file sharing community has reacted by attacking his blog (GFY.com has also been attacked presumably for hosting a long thread on which King has posted regular updates) and accusing him of egregious acts—including seeding lockers with illegal content that he then reports—is something King takes in stride.
"The industry I am targeting can say whatever the fuck they like, and call me the worst things they can imagine, and they have," he told me Monday. "They can do anything they want, I don't care, because it is simple proof for me that what I am doing is working."
That Aussie passion, which is offset by a cool self-assurance and a methodical approach to the problem, has been experienced not just by the target industry but by the processors he has "enlisted" to help in his mission to do to file lockers what the government did to Al Capone—get him by way of money rather than murder. To grab them by the money balls, however, he first needed to get the attention of processors like PayPal and others that operate from far flung locations around the world.
A few of the processors have turned out to be impervious to arguments about why it's not a good idea to be a financial enabler of wholesale piracy, but most have reacted responsibly, says King, even if his first main challenge was simply to make contact with the right person in order to make an appeal they could not refuse. It was at this precise point that King's steely determination, fueled by his frustration, kicked in and led him to devise a way to successfully penetrate Fortress PayPal and ultimately bend it to his will.
The technique he used to track down the right person, which may well wind up in a movie one day, worked brilliantly and got him the result he needed to jump start what has been a roller coaster of drama as one file locker after another has seen its existence threatened. The details can be read in a lengthy Q&A interview, which is posted separately on AVN.com, but suffice to say that his approach was decidedly old school.
At one point in our long conversation, in fact, King referred to a scene from All the President’s Men, using it to illustrate a point about a recent interaction with one of the file lockers, but for me it also underscored the work ethic and clarity he himself has brought to the locker fight, which turns out to have been, in its own way, as effective as Woodward and Bernstein's dogged reporting. No magic, no CSI theatrics and no fancy technology—just a relentlessly pragmatic approach combined with a devotion to transparency and ethical behavior.
Creating the relationships with processors to get the attention he required in order to do the work he was determined to do was just the first step, however. As our discussion revealed, King's fear that even the slightest inaccuracy in reporting could bring down the whole "house of cards," as he put it, meant that rigorous standards of research and reporting needed to be observed, even if it meant waiting weeks to strike. The standards remain intractably in place. "I will not submit a report to a payment processor unless the evidence is so damming that it can't be ignored," he told me.
Of course, the locker war is far from over and no one can say exactly how it will end, or even what the upshot for the industry will be if King is successful in killing off a file sharing model that incentivizes content thieves to steal the most current digital content available on the internet. But as much as King likes to philosophize, he seems to be equally comfortable in the knowledge that something simply had to be done, and no one was doing it like this. Lo and behold, the plan that had been brewing in his brain for a year, but which came to full realization in an epiphany borne of a confluence of events, is actually working, and may even have an impact on global piracy.
"Simple logic would dictate that if you cut off the incentive to upload illegal content, that fewer people will do it," he said, employing an irrefutable if often contested logic. "So, if we can succeed in cutting off most of the supply of money to these sites, most will fail and others will be reduced in size and impact. They will pay out less money and the incentive goes away for the people living in less-developed nations to sit in internet cafes all day to make $30."
For King, who has been working online and in adult since 1989, and helped to develop Australia's internet at a time when even the government did not have any websites—and who got rid of his own adult paysites in 2005 because of piracy—there seems to be a palpable joy in having been able to articulate and activate a plan of action that has thus far been as effective as it is simple. "My aim," he said, "is to basically wipe out the incentive that allows the file locker industry to continue by removing their supply of money."
Someone else could have devised this plan and then executed it, but they didn't. That doesn't mean that other efforts undertaken by members of the industry have not also been effective in the push back against copyright infringement—it is, after all, a war with many fronts—but this one is especially appealing because it seems to be so effective in a way that promises some sort of long-term results. To be sure, King's efforts are all the more impressive for the fact that he suffers from a multiple sclerosis-like illness.
"I call it MS on the boards," he told me, "though it's not really MS, but a version called Relapsing Remitting, which means that 90 percent of the time I'm fine but 10 percent of the time I can't walk or do anything for myself. It just comes on when I have no movement, and it happens randomly. I'm actually going through an episode at the moment; I went through the last one in March, and before that, it was a year ago."
Despite the current episode, King is logging very long days and lots of them, determined as he is to strike while the iron is hot. The situation remains fluid, to say the least, with some file lockers reacting with empty threats of litigation, others employing the usual sneaky counter-measures to keep processing PayPal, still others trying to bring on board new processors, and still others reaching out to King to negotiate a truce.
King says he has remained open and responsive to each of these reactions, and replies accordingly. He says he has been having effective dialogues with most of the processors working with file lockers, while remaining vigilant to file lockers that use redirect methods to illegitimately use PayPal after their accounts have been terminated. Though willing to engage in conversation with file locker operators interested in becoming productive members of society, as our long conversation made clear, he is simply unwilling to compromise on the changes he wants to see from file lockers; namely, a willingness to engage in legitimate efforts to keep pirated content off their networks. He mentioned a few times that his uncompromising position does not mean he is seeking perfection, and that he has always been an active supporter of a free and open internet, and is not trying to wipe out file sharing in its entirety.
"Look," he told me today, "there's nothing stopping any of these services from being free; nothing at all. The piracy has to be systemic, that's the point I've been trying to make about thresholds. It's got to be systemic and it's got to be uncontrolled and unmitigated."
In fact, King starts to get uncharacteristically hot under the collar when the subject comes up that some people think he is somehow out to restrict freedom on the internet. Nothing, he insists, could be farther from the truth. But neither is he willing to concede that the file locker model is, for the most part, built on a foundation of stealing other people's content and monetizing it. Pretending otherwise, he says, is crazy, despite some people's innate fear that a campaign such as his will lead to an end of file sharing.
"I am for freedom and privacy, and the ability to express your views without hindrance on the internet," he said Wednesday. "What I am not for is profiting off the backs of other people's hard work, and that's got nothing to do with internet freedom; it's got to do with crime. If I go into a store and steal a TV and then sell it at a pub, I'll go to jail. But if I go to someone's site and take their content and sell it on someone else's site, free speech advocates say it's freedom of speech, and it is not."
In a sane world, that view would be universal, but a quick perusal of any number of sites, including, of course, TorrentFreak but even, disappointingly, GFY, reveals a disturbingly embedded belief among many that business models built on the lifting of other people's content should be viewed as a new form of innovation. The ability to parse wrongdoing from profit seems to be on the decline.
While King, like any level-headed individual of a certain age, is more or less immune to that sort of popular derangement, he also is a realist who recognizes that nothing is perfect, and the way back to a level playing field will be long and arduous, and that the end result is by no means determined. For those in the industry (and beyond), who may have succumbed to a sense of futility in the fight against the global encroachment of "uncontrolled and unmitigated" piracy, his actions and the responses they have generated among processors and, more pointedly, among the file sharing community, have been a kind of revelation. Something can be done, even by a "one man army" that refused to take no for an answer.
Tuesday, if anyone has any further doubts, PayPal announced what TorrentFreak has characterized as "a list of far-reaching demands entirely targeted at copyright-infringing and otherwise illegal files," including the requirement that "Merchants must provide PayPal with free access to their service, so PayPal's Acceptable Use Policy department can monitor the content."
While that free access demand seems, at least for this writer, like a bit of an overreach, it seems likely that Robert King was a factor in the revised regs. The TF article mentions him, of course, if only to mitigate both his and PayPal's influence on the file locker industry, but they doth protest too much. He doesn't care either way, he tells me; he's not in it for the recognition. Still, his recurring presence in these articles tells the real story.
AVN also reached out to Julie Bainbridge, who runs Brand Rick Management for PayPal Legal, with a number of questions related to King's role in the PayPal terminations, and some other issues. Bainbridge replied Wednesday morning to say she had just landed in Hong Kong and would get back to us shortly, which has not yet happened. Because of the fluid nature of this story, check back to AVN.com for updates.
Robert King's blog can be found here.
The AVN interview with Robert King is available here.