The man who created Megaupload got insanely rich via morally dubious means. So it’s pretty amazing that the new documentary about the German-born hacker-turned-millionaire generates any sympathy. But it does, by sketching out an easy-to-swallow narrative alleging that powerful corporate and government forces systematically set out to destroy his life.
Caught in the Web opens by invoking a hoary cliche, in a close-up where Kim Dotcom compares his own crazy life to a Hollywood movie, the same kind of content that used to get traded back and forth over the rogue file-sharing site he created. The whole time Kim Dotcom was riding high off money gained by letting people share pirated entertainment, he popped off in the kind of brash, trash-talking bluster that makes a person look like an asshole. But, as the movie directed by Annie Goldson spools on, it becomes more than apparent that there’s more than enough truth in his story to allow for using the cliche.
Kim Dotcom in 1993, copyright Boris Rostamu-Rabet
The record on Kim Dotcom is pretty clear: he’s an blowhard huckster who broke laws and got rightfully punished for it. First nabbed for phone card fraud as a teenager, the man born Kim Schmitz has been convicted of multiple crimes by breaking laws meant to regulate how business got done in older telecommunications paradigms and on the internet. Early scenes in the film show how Dotcom first started building a personal fortune by spinning his outlaw hacker image into a dubious cyber-security business. He started living a empty, glamorous conspicuous-consumption lifestyle that had him partying on yachts and rubbing elbows with the likes of Richard Branson, Bruce Willis and football superstar Ronaldo.
The origins of Megaupload begin with this lavish lifestyle, as he claims to have started the infamous file-sharing site as a way to share video footage from The Gumball Rally, a perennial race where rich elite go to party and tool around in expensive cars. Megaupload went on to become a hub of pirated entertainment materials, which made Dotcom the target of Hollywood scorn and US government investigations.
Multiple threads come together in Caught in the Web, but the film is most concerned with the series of events that began in 2012, with a raid on Dotcom’s New Zealand home by local authorities working in conjunction with the FBI. Dotcom was arrested and held in custody, followed by filings to extradite him to the United States where he and others could face up to 8 years in prison for copyright infringement (that case is still ongoing). Dotcom pulled in millions while Megaupload was at its height. Yet the documentary trots out a friend from that period, who remembers how Dotcom never drank any of the gallons of champagne served at events.
When the film’s subject cites abuse suffered at the hands of an alcoholic father as the reason why, it’s the first manifestation of a predictable bid to pull at heartstrings. Stories about his single mum’s struggle to buy him his first computer, an asymmetrical courtship with now ex-wife Mona, a forced jail-time separation from his kids, and a return from incarceration just in time to see twin girls born all expertly combine to make Dotcom seem like less of a caricature than his public persona.
There’s no question as to Dotcom’s proclivity for skirting the edge of ethical and legal propriety, but after exhaustively humanizing him, Caught in the Web makes a convincing case that this ready-made villain was egregiously targeted by an alliance of Hollywood studios and the government of two separate sovereign nations.
Talking to lawyers, motion-picture industry advocates, film critics, tech journalists and more—along with snippets of news footage and government documents—Goodson captures the energetic tumult surrounding the dubious legality of the campaign against Dotcom. Dotcom plays the victim to the hilt, spinning out a conspiracy theory that the U.S. and New Zealand were out to get him because he was messing with the entertainment industry money that pours into Washington, D.C.
Dotcom, by no means, is going to land on the right side of history when all is said and done. But the movie shrewdly offers up evidence in way that makes it seem like Dotcom’s thoughts may not be just so much paranoia. At the time of the raid, the law of the land said that New Zealand’s intelligence agency couldn’t spy on its own citizens, but that law was clearly broken when New Zealand spied on Dotcom.
Dotcom also claims that they only reason he was granted New Zealand citizenship—despite a criminal record—was so that country could hand him over to the United States. Recent events involving Pete Thiel show that New Zealand does indeed have a sketchy, not always altruistic, basis for seemingly letting outsiders buy citizenship. Furthermore, the movie features journalist David Fisher, whose investigations revealed New Zealand never committed their own investigation into Dotcom, instead working solely off of U.S. intelligence claims that child pornography and terrorist materials lived on Mega servers.
The film explores how Dotcom seized on these revelations to re-invent himself as a would-be anti-surveillance-state activist, but also offers up moments where it’s plain to see that his ego is Dotcom’s tragic flaw. He’s shown taunting his enemies, getting celebrities like Kanye West to endorse his Mega enterprises, and inserting himself into New Zealand politics in a bid to oust Prime Minister John Key.
Kim Dotcom has talked a lot of shit that he never backed up and is a shell of the man he once was. Looking back on the history of volcanic internet businesses, it’s easy to say that a man with an ego like Dotcom’s would eventually have suffered a painful comeuppance. But this movie isn’t a piece of redemptive hagiography. I’d consigned Dotcom to being a clown in an overheated intellectual property rights circus but this film rounded out my sense of him. And its focus on the violation of his individual rights resonates in a cultural moment where the United States is dealing with the possibility of cyber-meddling in the most recent presidential election. Caught in the Web posits the idea that the only reason a man as outlandish as Dotcom fell so far and so hard is because he was mucking with the money that helps keep American politicians in power. Dotcom may sound paranoid but this documentary goes a long way to making the case that very powerful people were indeed out to get him.