KickassTorrents: the complete saga of the internet’s biggest P2P directory

A remnant of the internet’s wild west, KickassTorrents was once visited by over 50 million people per month. After an FBI investigation it was seized, but KAT is hardly dead.

KickassTorrents was a major player in the file-sharing story that dominated internet and cultural bandwidth throughout the early 21st century. Often referred to as KAT, for a while it was the largest peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing website in the world. In 2016 US prosecutors claimed it had trafficked over $1 billion worth of copyright infringing materials including movies, TV shows, music, and porn. Lots of porn.

Legality aside, the tale behind KickassTorrents is one that would fit the bill for a film or TV adaptation. The owners – including alleged founder Artem Vaulin, who we’ll talk about later – were pocketing up to $22 million annually, evading high prosecutors from multiple jurisdictions, bouncing their site between domains in Somalia, Isle of Man, and more, and generally maintaining their reputation as Escobar-esque internet mobsters.

So where did KickassTorrents come from, and where did it go? Does it still exist? Who made it, and where are they now? It’s one hell of a tale.

Image: Napster

How and when did KickassTorrents begin?

In 2008 file sharing had become an unstoppable internet train. It had almost been a decade since Napster broke the music industry by popularising the P2P format, allowing users all over the world to freely share files such as MP3s, videos, documents, and more. To say it was a litigation nightmare would be an understatement.

With Napster’s success, thousands of copycat networks such as LimeWire and eMule had popped up, hoping to score a slice of the pie. Their popularity was basically guaranteed – suddenly users all around the world had access to their favourite movies, TV shows, and music without having to pay a cent.

The BitTorrent protocol was another major factor, introduced in 2001. This allowed for what’s called decentralised sharing – something sites like KickassTorrents wouldn’t have worked without. Rather than downloading files from a single host, torrent files send small requests to multiple users around the world, reducing load on individual servers.

KickassTorrents hit the market in 2008, and by November 2014, it had overtaken The Pirate Bay as the internet’s most popular torrent directory. Those years weren’t without their issues, though.

UK and Belgian authorities ordered the blockage of KAT in 2013, around the same time the Motion Picture Association of America forced Google to delist the site from search results. Ireland and Malaysia followed in 2014, blocking the site from national ISPs, a move Portugal matched in 2015.

The killing blow, though, came in 2016. On July 20th that year, the US Department of Justice announced it had seized the KickassTorrents domain – now hosted in Croatia as kat.cr – and arrested KAT’s alleged owner.

Olga Nikolayeva artem vaulin KAT
Artem Vaulin and his wife Olga Nikolayeva. Photo: Olga Nikolayeva / The Verge

The prosecution

On his way from Ukraine to Iceland, Artem Vaulin was arrested during a layover in Poland as a result of a US extradition request. It wasn’t the family holiday he had planned to take, and soon he was at the Warsaw-Bialoleka Investigative Detention Center. The Verge managed to interview him during this time, where he alleged innocence – without directly confirming his involvement with KAT at his lawyer’s orders.

“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. If someone came to me to tell me the United States was angry with something I do, whatever it was, I would stop.”

The DOJ had linked Vaulin to KickassTorrents through a rather obvious blunder, in retrospect. Special agent Jared Der-Yeghiayan, the same investigator who had previously arrested The Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht, cross-referenced an Apple email and IP address used for an iTunes transaction to the email responsible for updating KickassTorrents’ Facebook page.

The irony of an iTunes transaction – one of the ways to legally purchase digital music at the time – being responsible for Vaulin’s arrest was not lost to the copyright world.

“No, I don’t hate [the Hollywood studios],” Vaulin had told The Verge.

“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.”

The technology and practice of torrenting isn’t actually illegal, which is where Vaulin and his lawyers firmly stood. The grounds the US was prosecuting him on were facilitating the insanely large amount of piracy KAT was allowing – and it was enough. In February of 2017, a federal judge in Illinois ruled that the DOJ had appropriately arrested Vaulin and immediately requested his extradition to the US.

That process can take years and in the meantime, Polish authorities granted Vaulin bail for his worsening health. The story then petered out until October 2020, when the Poland Ministry of Justice reported to the US that Vaulin had gone missing. The man had presumably fled the country, contradicting his bail terms.

His whereabouts are currently unknown, and Artem Vaulin has been registered as an official fugitive of the US government.

A KickassTorrent proxy site, 2017

The birth of the KickassTorrent proxy

In December of 2016 a handful of former KickassTorrents employees launched a site that was practically the same as the original, which lasted all the way through to July 2020.

Though the original is nowhere to be found, the directory of torrent files is still available through Kickass proxy sites – pages that allow access to KAT’s huge number of torrents to this day. These come and go as they’re seized, taken down, or fall victim to malware attacks or phishing scams. Using them is a little sketchy as they operate in a legal grey area, similar to the original website.

Not to mention, the original founders of KickassTorrents have publicly denounced the use of these proxy website, likely due to the severity of their own legal battles with the US.

What happens to the case now?

Vaulin wasn’t the only KickassTorrent staffer who was targeted by the US. Two other defendants, Ievgen Kutsenko and Oleksandr Radostin, were involved in the original case, but were never apprehended and are presumably a long way from Poland right now.

With Vaulin’s whereabouts unknown, his lawyers Theodore Poulos, Ira Rothken, Jared Smith, and Valentin Gurvits have also formally requested that the US federal court grant them withdrawal from the ongoing case. Their appeal read:

“Because Defendant Vaulin appears to have intentionally violated the conditions of release and became a fugitive, undersigned counsel are no longer amenable to representing Defendant Vaulin and wish to withdraw as his counsel.”

So as of right now, the case of the United States versus KickassTorrents is in limbo. Until Vaulin, or perhaps his two associates who were never caught, are tracked down again, the investigation is somewhat dead in the water.

If the US estimation that these men were pocketing $12 million per year in ad revenue was correct, they have significant resources to back up their escapes. Perhaps in the future we’ll hear from them again – until then, you’ll just have to wait for the inevitable Netflix documentary covering the incredible story of KickassTorrents.