Life, the Universe, and Everything

The end of the world at the end of the Internet

by by Josh Sunderman

illustration by by Olivia Fialkow

At the end of the Internet, there is LUElinks. Don’t try to find it. It doesn’t exist. But if you somehow reached the home page, you’d find an Internet community in crisis. For nearly a decade, this secret collective has been building a vast infrastructure of links, laying out a buffet of pirated goods—movies and books, games and software programs. Yet with the recent demise of Megaupload, the seemingly invincible behemoth of Internet piracy has revealed itself to be little more than a house of cards, crumbling under the weight of US Copyright Law.

Maculate Conception
In May 2004, LlamaGuy posted a link to “Goatse” on Internet gaming site GameFAQs. “Goatse” was an early Internet meme, which entailed a single image of an adult male providing a view of his entire anal cavity. The GameFAQs forum, in turn, froze LlamaGuy’s account for two weeks. Three hours before its reactivation, he whipped up some code for his own Internet forum called LUElinks—“Life, the Universe, and Everything,” a reference to the third book of the five-volume The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. LlamaGuy intended the site to serve as provocative offshoot of GameFAQs where lewd content could thrive and link sharing was encouraged. LUElinks exploded through the cybersphere, jumping quickly to more than 4,000 users before LlamaGuy cut membership off from the public. Yet while LUElinks membership has remained static, its reputation has continued to grow; rumors circulate constantly about high-profile members in politics and culture, and LUEsers are famously protective over their accounts. This is the logic behind LUElinks’s non-existence—those who are in are eager to maintain secrecy; those who are not prefer to ignore it completely, refusing to indulge the LUElinks ego.

In this vein, real-world identities are never a topic of discussion on LUElinks. For one, the stakes of the linksharing communities like LUElinks are extremely high. For all the petty middle fingers that LUEsers exchange with the rest of the Internet, the risks of membership are real. After all, the site has been home to hundreds of thousands of links to pirated material, an act known as “deep linking,” a growing issue in courts worldwide. In December 2006, a Texas court ruled against for linking to illegal material. The same year, courts in Australia and Denmark upheld copyright laws against deep linking, raiding homes, issuing massive fines, and filing injunctions.

LUEsers face threats from the inside, as well. LUEsers are very careful to monitor the content of their posts and profiles, as the community might not only ban users from the site, but also pursue their enemies in far more dangerous cyber capacities: hacking social media, finding credit card information, or anything available on the web (which is, for the tech-savvy, everything). When I contacted a LUElinks user for an interview, he insisted on anonymity, concerned that speaking about a site that “doesn’t actually exist” could get him in trouble—we’ll call him Z. “You’re going to call LUElinks by name?” he asked. “They will find you. If this is on the Internet, they will find you.”

Yet despite the cyber-badassery that LUElinks attempts to exude, the more accurate reason that LUEsers hide behind their Internet personas is that most of them have very little non-Internet life to speak of. “These are serious nerds,” Z said. “You know, the real hardcore living-in-the-basement type nerds.” With this consideration, it becomes almost impossible to distinguish the more dangerous LUElinks threats from those that result from an inflated sense of power behind the cyber wall.

All you can eat
For all the secrecy surrounding LUElinks, the site’s appearance is remarkably unimpressive. Where one might expect a community of programmers to create a site exploding with complex graphics and enchanting portals, there is only austerity: a simple grey header at the top of the page with links to forums written in blue Arial font on top of a plain black background.

The site is rife with vulgar content: “NSFW” tags litter the active threads; one quick glance at the opening page gives you the choice between viewing pictures of “underboobs,” “sideboobs,” or, if you’re a purist, just “boobs.” Other LUEsers opt for the “NLS” links—Not Life Safe—which, Z explains, “will fuck you up for life, like stuff I just can’t even or don’t even want to imagine.” Threads read like a chat room filled with fifth graders, brimming with vulgarity and ridicule.

Nonetheless, if you can make it past these turnoffs, the search capacity on LUElinks is simply astonishing. Because LUEsers have so much of their reputation invested in their online profile, they are eager to upload and post links constantly. Links undergo an extensive process of peer review, with low quality content immediately downgraded. When I spoke with W, another LUEser that also insisted on anonymity, he told me “when I first activated my account, I spent literally hours at a time downloading everything.” Photoshop, Ableton Live, Microsoft Office, Mac OS X. “I would say 30 albums a week, that was like my going rate,” W said. The site went on like this—growing daily, every new release added to the library—for years.

The cyber frontier
On January 19, three separate countries launched a blitz against LUElinks’ primary host, file-sharing site In Hong Kong, the city that housed Megaupload’s headquarters, customs officials froze close to $40 million of company assets; in New Zealand, police raided Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom’s Auckland mansion; and on the web, the U.S. State Department confiscated the site, planting their seal on the site’s front page.

“Imagine the end of the world,” Z explains. “Asteroids hit the Earth; resources are lost. All that is left are a handful of refugees—that is how it felt to be on LUElinks.” LlamaGuy, in an act of diluvian cleansing, wiped the search engine clean. And for those first brief moments, the community was in shambles, and threads exploded with shrieks of terror. But, by the minute, the cyber grief began to unfold, as threads moved through denial, anger, blame, and only minutes later, acceptance. “Almost automatically,” Z says, “you start seeing different subgroups breaking away—some people pick up their stuff and leave; some start developing their new world together, and of course, some try to build it back up.”

W fell into the group of defectors: “I immediately stopped spending time on LUElinks,” he explained. “It wasn’t like I was going there to socialize on the forum. I was going to download music.” Other wayward LUElinks members flocked to new sites like “New Links,” which have been sprouting up all over the LUElinks forums. According to one thread, there were six LUElinks spin-offs made on January 28 alone. Left hoping are a good number of LUEsers who await the miracle work of LlamaGuy himself—“our father,” as W described him. The search engine now reports (somewhat facetiously) that the site is undergoing “scheduled maintenance,” perhaps laying low until the Megaupload controversy blows over.

One thread that opened up recently asked, “How have you been dealing with the end of Megaupload?” Responses varied. One user reported that he had started paying for media in the past week, noting that he might not be able to make rent; another reported “chronic masturbation.” By far the most common response was that LUEsers were simply taking to other piracy sites. Mediafire, Filestube, Rapidshare. There are so many options still available to online pirates that the State Department’s strategy seems nothing short of futile.

Perhaps, then, the recent postponement of the SOPA bill, legislation that sought to protect intellectual property rights through the prosecution of piracy sites, is a reflection of the impossibility of regulating the unregulatable. “The sheer number of people that are behind piracy completely trumps the number of people who are against it,” W argues. “Within 48 hours, some 16-year-old hacker from Wisconsin will just make a new site.” This is the predominant view of Internet piracy, which imagines a gradual erosion of intellectual property rights in the Internet Age. As a former executive at Interscope Records explained to me, “Intellectual property is certainly important, but it’s about to become irrelevant.”

Yet for cybersecurity experts—oriented less toward piracy and more toward policy—the prediction is just the opposite. Dr. Chris Demchak, a Professor at the US Naval War College and Co-Director of the Center for Cyber Conflict Studies, doubts the free-for-all future of the web. “No frontier lasts forever,” she writes in the Spring 2011 issue of Strategic Studies Quarterly. “No freely occupied and used commons extends endlessly where human societies are involved. Sooner or later, good fences are erected to make good neighbors and so it must be with cyberspace.” In our interview, she noted that while she predicted regulation, she lamented its inevitability. “Imagine you’re at a party with your friends. Drinking, dancing, having a good time. All it takes is a few guys to come along—swinging fists, hitting on someone’s girlfriend—and the whole party is over.” For Demchak, the angry responses to the SOPA and PIPA bills are understandable: “People don’t like having things taken away from them.” In reality, according to Demchak, there are real dangers in the Internet, some of which are sites just like LUElinks, which, if left alone, could provide a breeding ground for hackers with far more menacing motives. In response, then, there is a tendency toward cyberlaw.

Cyber security experts frequently compare the Internet to the advent of the automobile. “When the automobile was first available, there were no rules of the road,” explained John Savage, An Wang Professor of Computer Science at Brown University. “Around 1900 it became clear that some order had to be introduced into driving and the stop sign was invented, making driving a lot safer… Eventually not only were rules of the road introduced, but auto safety requirements as well. On the information superhighway, the same types of problem arise.” According to Savage, the Internet remains a technology in its toddlerhood, and the government is just beginning to understand—and consequently regulate—its complex topography. In retrospect, the unregulated Internet of today will be nothing more than a nostalgic artifact.

In the meantime, though, LUEsers are working overtime to maintain the free spirit of the cybersphere. “Big booty grandma NWS,” “Why don’t submarines have detachable sonar ping systems? “Newlinks. Over 6500 registered users. Nearly 1000 links. Opened 2 weeks ago.” These are the guardians of the piracy movement, the Dark Knights at the

JOSH SUNDERMAN B’14 doesn’t exist.