NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Federal agents launched a crackdown on users of a popular new technology used to steal the latest "Star Wars" movie and other large data files off the Internet, immigration officials announced Wednesday.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Wednesday that the campaign, which included search warrants and the shutdown of a Web site, was its first-ever criminal enforcement action against users of a file-sharing program known as BitTorrent.
Jamie Zuieback, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said no criminal charges have been filed. The search warrants led to raids in eight states, including Pennsylvania, Arizona, Illinois and Virginia.
BitTorrent, described as Hollywood's version of the Napster scourge that rocked the music industry several years ago, has become an increasingly popular way for Internet users to get movies, songs, and video games.
BitTorrent captured headlines last week when it was revealed that "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith" was available for free online.
The sixth and final installment of the "Star Wars" franchise was available for downloading on Elitetorrents.org more than six hours before it was released on theaters Thursday after midnight, according to a government statement released Wednesday.
Within 24 hours, more than 10,000 copies of the "Star Wars" film had been swiped.
In Wednesday's raids, government officials targeted top members of a file-sharing network that is based on BitTorrent and is known as Elite Torrents.
In all, 10 search warrants were executed as part of "Operation D-Elite." Elitetorrents.org, a Web site used to coordinate all file-sharing activity on the Elite Torrents network, was shut down.
The search warrants are not public, said Zuieback, a U.S. Immigration and Customs spokeswoman. She said the raids were directed at individuals known as "first providers," or those who initially made the copyrighted material available online.
Zuieback did not say whether Wednesday's action was directly tied to the "Star Wars" theft.
Government officials, in their statement, called the content available on Elitetorrents.org "virtually unlimited" and signaled their intent to continue efforts to rein in illegal downloading.
"Our goal is to shut down as much of this illegal operation as quickly as possible to stem the serious financial damage to the victims of this high-tech piracy -- the people who labor to produce these copyrighted materials," said John Richter, acting assistant attorney general in the Justice Department.
"Today's crackdown sends a clear and unmistakable message to anyone involved in the online theft of copyrighted works that they cannot hide behind new technology," continued Richter.
The enforcement activity was coordinated with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a unit within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Fighting a losing battle?
It's not known how much Internet piracy costs U.S. companies every year, although entertainment industry executives claim it amounts to billions of dollars every year. Critics -- including defenders of file-sharing technologies -- say industry estimates are overblown.
Wednesday's announcement comes six months after the Motion Picture Association of America borrowed a page from the music industry and began suing Internet users for stealing movies online.
In December, the MPAA, the main lobbying group for Hollywood's major studios, announced a crackdown on users of BitTorrent and other cutting-edge technologies around the world, including individuals in the U.K., France, Finland and the Netherlands.
In the wake of that blitz, at least one popular BitTorrent site, Suprnova.org, shut down.
Hollywood and the music industry are also hoping a U.S. Supreme Court decision due next month will give them greater power to sue file-sharing networks used to steal copyrighted material online. Entertainment companies are also lobbying Congress to pass legislation aimed at limiting Internet piracy.
File-sharing experts, however, have questioned whether BitTorrent, which effectively speeds up the download process and is now the most popular file-sharing technology available, can be stopped.
BitTorrent is a legitimate technology. But unlike other common file-sharing software like Grokster and Kazaa, it does not have a central location or a company behind it.
Given BitTorrent's decentralized nature, it's difficult to limit piracy using the technology. When one BitTorrent site goes off-line, another pops up to take its place.
File-sharing experts agree that the most effective weapon against Internet piracy is the threat of civil or criminal charges against individual users.
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