In July 2016, Artem Vaulin left Ukraine for a vacation to Iceland with his family, but he never made it to his destination. During a layover in Poland, Vaulin — the 31-year-old accused by the United States of operating KickassTorrents (KAT), the web’s most popular place to illegally obtain movies, songs, and video games — was arrested by authorities.
Until last week, Vaulin had been held at Warsaw-Bialoleka Investigative Detention Center with little contact to the outside world while the Polish government evaluated a US extradition request. Last Tuesday, two days before his release, The Verge sat down with Vaulin in his jail cell for a two-hour interview — the first since his arrest — to discuss his extradition fight and his life inside jail.
The day before I arrived at Bialoleka, I attended a court hearing in Warsaw to decide on a request made by Vaulin’s attorneys that, after 10 months, he be released on bail for medical reasons. Vaulin suffers from a spinal condition from well before his arrest, his lawyers say. Just like with his previous requests, the court turned him down. But this past Thursday, the court unexpectedly reversed its decision.
Today Vaulin is out of jail, but unable to leave the country. He was released on $108,000 bail, according to his lawyers, and his passport was confiscated. An extradition process could take months. In the meantime, he is living in a rented Warsaw apartment with his wife and five-year-old son.
“We are pleased that the Polish Court allowed Artem Vaulin to be free on bail,” said Ira Rothken, the Silicon Valley-based lawyer representing Vaulin. Rothken is perhaps best known for defending accused Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom. “This will allow Artem to care for his health, be with his family, and assist in his legal defense.”
Founded in 2008, KickassTorrents became the go-to destination for torrenting movies after the Feds took down Dotcom’s juggernaut of a file-hosting service in 2012. According to the criminal complaint against Vaulin, filed on July 8th, 2016 in the Northern District of Illinois Eastern Division, 50 million people visited KAT each month, making it the 69th most-visited site in the world. Prosecutors said KAT distributed $1 billion worth of copies of songs, films, and other media. They also said Vaulin pocketed tens of millions of dollars from ad revenue.
Vaulin’s story is unique because few website operators have gone to jail for as long as he has without being convicted. Fewer still are believed to have been sent to a place like Bialoleka.
Vaulin recalled that not long after his arrest he needed to be taken to the hospital for back pain. He was astonished to learn he would be escorted by four policemen wearing ski masks and armed with machine guns. During the ambulance ride, with the siren blaring and the lights flashing, Vaulin says one of his guards told him they had heard he was responsible for the murder of three people.
“No,” a spooked Vaulin told the guard. “It’s just about torrents.”
In the 2000s, the early days of torrenting, web piracy allegations were nearly always settled in civil court, not criminal court. Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, co-founders of the first mainstream file-sharing site Napster, were the target of lawsuits that caused their company to go bankrupt, but neither Fanning nor Parker went to jail. The same went for the founders of LimeWire, Hotfile, TorrentSpy, Isohunt, Grooveshark, and all the other companies that were accused of enabling piracy and sued out of existence. Among the few who were convicted and sent to prison were the three founders of The Pirate Bay, probably the best-known and most defiant file-sharing service of all time. According to reports, Peter Sunde served five months and Fredrik Neij spent less than eight months in jail. It’s unclear how much time Gottfrid Svartholm Warg actually served for copyright violations as he was given a concurrent multi-year sentence for non-related hacking offenses.
The US signaled a change in attitude on January 19th, 2012 when New Zealand police busted Kim Dotcom on behalf of the US Department of Justice in a dramatic raid. Today, Dotcom remains free on bail in New Zealand, fighting US extradition attempts. Dotcom’s high-profile arrest was a sign that the US would encourage international agents to take down serial criminal copyright violators in much the same way they prosecute dope dealers and organized crime figures. The scare tactic seems to be effective. In the past few months, some of the web’s top file-sharing hubs, including TorrentHound, What.cd, and Torrentz.eu have closed down. Just last week, ExtraTorrent notified users that it was going offline forever. “Thanks to all ET supporters and torrent community. ET was a place to be…”
Vaulin’s incarceration in Bialoleka, 17 miles north of Warsaw, seems to be another warning to file-sharing moguls.
Bialoleka was built in 1952 during the Soviet Union’s rule over Poland. The 1,300-person detention facility once held some of the leaders of Solidarity, the independent Polish labor movement that became a symbol of resistance and eventually helped bring down the USSR. Today it holds a range of criminals, including violent offenders.
From outside, the jail looks like any other: four drab buildings surrounded by high walls topped by barbed wire. When I entered his cell, Vaulin was lying on a hospital bed that had been brought in for him. The cell was about 25 square meters, which is a little small for two people. With pastel-colored walls and plentiful sunlight coming through the barred window, it was cheerier than I had expected. One of Vaulin’s lawyers, Katiana Pacewicz, said, “This is the VIP room. Other rooms, not so nice.”
Pacewicz and Vaulin’s wife, Olga Nikolayeva, said Vaulin typically shared a 15-square-meter cell with three other inmates. That area — the size of a single-car parking space — contained a toilet, four men, their possessions, and two sets of bunk beds. Vaulin says that for a time he was placed in a cell with a man accused of murder. According to Pacewicz, this was just one of the many ways that the jail and Poland’s government regularly failed to meet the standards recommended by the European Union for the humane treatment of prisoners.
“(Jail cells) shall only be shared,” wrote EU ministers in 2006, “if it is suitable for this purpose and shall be occupied by prisoners suitable to associate with each other.”
Vaulin’s lawyers also stressed the facility’s administration’s disregard for Vaulin’s back pain. During visits to the hospital, he was forced to sleep with his leg chained to the bed. Back at the jail, Vaulin was transferred between cells seven times; he was made to carry all his possessions to a new cell in one trip: books, legal papers, cups, pots, etc.
“The first time I had so much pain,” Vaulin said. “Yes, I told the guards. But they work 9 to 5. It is a job and my problem doesn’t interest them. One told me: ‘If you’re healthy enough to talk, then it’s not urgent.’”
Though Vaulin is not a confident English speaker, with the help of his English-speaking attorney and an English-Russian Dictionary, he makes himself easy to understod.
Prisoners receive the same meal every day, according to Vaulin. Earlier his wife had complained that he had dropped weight during his incarceration. Because he wore loose-fitting pants and a T-shirt, it was difficult to tell his condition. Beside the fact that he was laying in a hospital bed, he appeared healthy.
The facility’s officials did not respond to an interview request last week.
The US government has said in court that Vaulin has only himself to blame for his incarceration in Poland.
“He is in custody based upon his own decision to resist extradition,” said Devlin Su, a DOJ prosecutor, during a hearing on Vaulin’s case last January. “He could easily have agreed to extradition back when he was arrested in July. He could agree to it now. He doesn’t have to sit in jail in Poland. The only reason he’s doing that is because he wants to put up as many roadblocks as possible.”
“We believe the indictment lacks merit,” says Rothken. “We have a motion to dismiss pending in federal court in Chicago.”
I asked Vaulin about the charges against him, and if he ever operated KAT until his arrest in 2016, as the US government alleges. Did he knowingly commit copyright infringement? Vaulin said Rothken advised him not to discuss any specific allegations about his case.
But he did offer this: “I’m a businessman. When I start a business I consult lawyers. I was never told that anything I was involved in was against the law.”
“I’m not crazy,” Vaulin said, clarifying that he was speaking hypothetically. “If someone came to me to tell me the United States was angry with something I do, whatever it was, I would stop.”
Joseph Fitzpatrick, a spokesperson for the US District Court in Illinois, which filed the indictment against Vaulin, declined to comment on Vaulin’s statements.
In the criminal complaint, prosecutors say they can prove Vaulin founded and operated KAT, tried to conceal the nature of its business, and flatly “ignored” the requirements under copyright law that service providers must obey if they don’t want to be liable for their users’ copyright infringement.
Investigators say it was Vaulin who registered KAT’s site in 2009, and it was Vaulin who updated KAT’s Facebook fan page. They claim Vaulin was the one who directly controlled the bank account where millions of dollars of KAT’s ad revenue poured in each month. They say they know all this by tracking his IP address, along with information provided by Apple.
Some in the tech press have mocked Vaulin for not doing a better job of concealing his identity, calling his use of an Apple email a “colossal screwup.“ But Vaulin insists he was unaware of any wrongdoing. He traveled widely through US-friendly territories during the time he is said to have run KAT.
“I wasn’t afraid to travel,” he said. “I had nothing to hide.”
The United States maintains that Vaulin was aware of his criminal activities, and that’s why he attempted to mask KAT’s piracy operations by tucking them inside a dummy company called Cryptoneat.
“Cryptoneat is not a company,” Vaulin told The Verge. “It’s just a brand, a trademark that I created. There are no employees. It’s a good name that I liked and intended to use someday. Someone in the Justice Department made a mistake. A company called Cryptoneat doesn’t exist.”
As the conversation wrapped up, stewards rolled up to his cell with a couple containers of food.
Vaulin insists that he’s innocent, and he holds no grudges toward the studios that encourage the zealous prosecution of individuals taking part in file-sharing services.
“No, I don’t hate [the Hollywood studios],” he said. “They are just interested in making money. They want to save their business. They don’t want to compete. But putting me in prison isn’t going to help them. Torrents aren’t going to stop. Everybody in poor countries torrents. Some of the guards [here] told me they torrent.”