U.S. Justice Department closed the file-sharing website Megaupload this week. It was the result of a vast criminal investigation that spanned eight countries and caused an almost immediately hostile response from the digital hacker collective Anonymous. Now many lawyers are talking not only about the scope of the case, but the tactics the U.S. government employed.

NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Prosecutors and FBI agents who built the case against Megaupload call it an international crime ring; a racketeering enterprise, like the mob or a drug gang, that made 175 million dollars from pirated movies and music.

Starting last August, the U.S. worked behind the scenes with law enforcement counterparts in New Zealand, who finally arrested the company's flamboyant founder, Kim Dotcom, at his mansion near Auckland Friday.

That was a little much for electronic privacy advocate Corrine McSherry.

CORRINE MCSHERRY: What we're talking about here is, you know, copyright infringement and that may be a serious problem. But it's a little bit chilling, if it's the kind of problem that can get you dragged from your house in the middle of the night.

JOHNSON: It's not just rousting people out of bed or executing search warrants in eight different countries. From the indictment, its clear the Justice Department pulled out all the stops, getting a judge's permission to try to put the Hong Kong-based company out of business, and getting search warrants for private e-mails that Megaupload officials were sending to each other - e-mails that could prove critical to the case.

Jonathan Zittrain teaches law and computer science at Harvard University.

JONATHAN ZITTRAIN: The employees of this company themselves, says the indictment, are talking about, you know, gee, aren't we pirating? Isn't this going well? And, hey, I'm looking for a copy of a movie myself; does anyone know where it is?

JOHNSON: But Megaupload says it's a legitimate business, with lots of users who didn't have anything to do with stealing the latest "Twilight" movie or episodes of the HBO mob drama "The Sopranos."

Megaupload has hired mega lawyer Bob Bennett, who once represented President Bill Clinton, to make its case in American courts. Bennett told NPR he intends to vigorously dispute the charges, which carry huge financial penalties and a 20-year prison term.

Orin Kerr is an expert in computer law at George Washington University. He says the legal fight is only just beginning.

ORIN KERR: There are very complicated jurisdictional questions. Did the individuals know they were violating United States law? Did that matter? Does it matter that you know you're violating the law in the U.S. even if you're outside the U.S.?

JOHNSON: American officials say they're in the clear because the company used computer servers in Virginia and Washington to store some of its material.

Michael Vatis ran the computer crime program for the FBI.

MICHAEL VATIS: I think the main limitation is resources. These are complicated cases to investigate in large part because they involve international criminals and therefore require international cooperation, with lots of law enforcement agencies around the world.

JOHNSON: He says the already close ties mean the Justice Department isn't worried about getting Kim Dotcom, the alleged kingpin of the conspiracy, onto American soil for trial.

And you know what else involves cooperation? A counter-attack, which is just what happened to the Justice Department website, taken out for hours by supporters of Megaupload after the criminal charges.

A spokeswoman says Justice is looking into the so-called malicious activity. Kerr, of George Washington University, is on the lookout too.

KERR: One of the interesting things to watch is whether the Justice Department is able to identify who launched these attacks, and may of course try to investigate those individuals and see if they can be then prosecuted.

JOHNSON: It's a cat-and-mouse game, Kerr says, that goes both ways, and he expects to see more revenge attacks against U.S. prosecutors, as more computer crime cases emerge.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.


SIMON: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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