Under the moniker “Queen Phara,” Hana Amal Beshara became known to her followers as the public face of the highly-popular pirated TV and movie site NinjaVideo.net, which she co-founded back in 2008. Along with the App Store and Twitter, PC World named the site (motto: “This shit is Ninja”) one of the top products of 2009.
Ms. Bahara, who grew up in Brooklyn and New Jersey to strict Egyptian- born parents, had an unlikely resume for the job: She was valedictorian of her high school class and studied political science at NYU. Before graduating in 2003, she interned at the Clinton Foundation and the East West Institute in Prague.
On Friday, Ms. Bahara was sentenced to 22-months in prison after pleading guilty in September to conspiracy and criminal copyright infringement. Three of her co-defendants also plead guilty, and are awaiting sentencing. A Virginia judge ordered Ms. Beshara, who was identified as a resident of North Brunswick, New Jersey, to serve two years of supervised release, complete 500 hours of community service, forfeit financial accounts related to NinjaVideo and repay $209,826.95 that she personally obtained. The checks are supposed to go directly to the Motion Picture Association of America.
Both Ms. Beshara’s brother, an Air Force captain, and her best friend, asked for leniency despite her guilty plea, as ArsTechnica reports:
Last year, Beshara issued a YouTube video to the NinjaVideo community in which she suggested that she hadn’t known her actions were wrong. “We weave and we bob through these grey areas of laws not yet written,” she said.
But after pleading guilty, she changed her tune. Her plea agreement with the government admits that she said, “we are extremely illegal” during an Internet chat and later that “my best work… is my illegal website moderation and uploading.”
DMCA takedowns, she admitted, were not always obeyed:
The site managed to rake in $505,000 between 2008 and 2010, and money was on the mind of people like Beshara. “You’re so helpless when you’re limited to so few ad companies to choose from being a pirate site,” she complained in an online chat. And when it came to DMCA takedowns, she admitted that NinjaVideo would “leave some content specifically listed in the DMCA takedown notices on the NinjaVideo.net website, based primarily on the volume of user hits/requests and the amount of revenue.
Ms. Beshara’s case will be an interesting weather vane to watch as Congress continues to argue over the legal implications of the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act. In a lengthy profile in American Prospect, she described the level of work that went into making the site so impeccably organized, a rarity in the world of pirated video:
“I don’t think I ever had anything I was so impassioned about,” Beshara says. “It was my life’s work.” Every night on Skype, she set lineups and coordinated assignments for a team of uploaders, located as far away as Scotland and Australia, who hunted the Web for the highest-quality digital files. In just four months, the site was hosting 10,000 links to movies, television shows, classic cartoon series, and scanned comic books. On the chat forum, Beshara deputized moderators to maintain civility and bolster participation. Ninja opened separate discussion sections with broad topics like philosophy, science, politics, current events, and culture. Strict rules were set for debate etiquette. Behavioural infractions ranged from bossiness to belligerence. Penalties, imposed at the discretion of Beshara and her moderators, might entail a friendly reminder or a permanent ban.
As the American Prospect article also explains, entertainment corporations like NBC, Time Warner, Disney, News Corp, Sony and others were the ones who provided targets for the federal Operation In Our Sites raid that first caught Ms. Beshara. It wasn’t only NinjaVideo’s traffic that won it the ire of the content providers:
“One of the reasons we targeted Ninja Video was because it had such a strong social element,” says Kevin Suh, senior vice president of Internet content protection at the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). “We wanted to send waves through this community.”