U.S. federal prosecutors say the data hosted on Megaupload servers could be deleted as early as Thursday -- a grim prospect for anyone who's ever used the cyberlocker for legitimate purposes, such as storing work files. The site is currently inaccessible.

Prosecutors blocked access to Megaupload and charged seven men with crimes relating to online piracy on Jan. 18. Authorities say Megaupload facilitated the exchange of millions of illegally downloaded movies, music and other copyrighted content.

The lawyer representing Megaupload in the case, Ira Rothken, is arguing that the founders of the company will be less able to defend themselves in court if data from their servers is deleted.

Megaupload, which uses third parties to host the stores information, has been unable to pay the storage centers it works with because the company's funds have been frozen.

It is our understanding that the hosting companies may begin deleting the contents of the servers beginning as early as 2 February, said U.S. prosecutors in a letter to the BBC. The letter explains that select data was copied, but none of the servers were removed from the companies that were hosting Megaupload data. Companies that were storing information from Megaupload include Carpathia Hosting and Cogent Communications Group.

Prosecutors are not responsible for the data stored on Megaupload's servers, which are owned by companies including Carpathia and Cogent.

Should the defendants wish to obtain independent access ... that issue must be resolved directly with Cogent or Carpathia, U.S. prosecutors said.

The Prevalence of Piracy

Megaupload had about 150 million registered users when it was shut down on Jan. 19, which made it one of the most popular file-sharing services in the world. Prosecutors have accused the company of costing copyright holders more than $500 million in revenues.

If the lost revenue figure is accurate, what may be more shocking is the amount of money lost by copyright holders in the more popular realms of file-sharing across the Internet. A recent study from the British market intelligence firm Envisional showed that pirated content accounts for 24 percent of worldwide bandwidth consumption.

Cyberlockers, or online file storage providers, which is exactly what Megaupload was, only account for 5.1 percent of total bandwidth. BitTorrent, the peer-to-peer communications protocol used for file share, which is the most common platform for digital piracy, accounts for 11.4 percent of global bandwidth consumption.

Unlike a cyberlocker, BitTorrent operates as a mesh network, allowing people to send fragments of large files in any order. The protocol is specifically good for exchanging large files quickly. According to the study, BitTorrent is by far and away the preferred method of Internet piracy, making up 49.1 percent.

The study argues that legitimate alternatives to cyberlockers and BitTorrenting are often the most productive way for businesses to adapt to the trends of the internet. As was the case in the early days of file-sharing with software such as Napster, suing pirates endlessly does very little to curb the trend.

Envisional points out that business models such as iTunes, Netflix, Steam, Hulu and BBC iPlayer have used technology introduced by pirates and legitimized it. People tend to use legitimate means of consuming media if given the opportunity. This is best exemplified in the case of Netflix, which offers cheap and easy access to thousands of streaming titles.

Unlike purchasing a Blu-Ray Disc or DVD, Netflix does not penalize customers for choosing a movie they don't enjoy or only care to watch once; moreover, Netflix movies can be viewed instantaneously--something that was never possible with traditional movie rental business models such as Blockbuster. As thousands of customers flocked to Netflix, the main priority of the American consumer became evident: People just want their media served up easily and cheaply.

The flat fee that Netflix offers is more than reasonable, plus it's accessible from several devices (phones, video game systems, tablets, etc.), and there's a huge library of content to choose from. That's probably why Netflix is currently the single largest consumer of bandwidth in the United States at all times of the day, with 29 percent of all peak downstream traffic.

The Envisional research emphasizes that in the future, legitimate alternatives will proliferate. Envisional says, Piracy will continue because it offer fast and easy access to content, the widest availability and is reliable.

If Netflix bandwidth numbers are any indication, consumers prefer to use a platform that's legitimate so long as it's cheap, quick and easy. The fact that pirates lost Megaupload ultimately means nothing--at least until someone provides an easier way to consume copyrighted material.

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