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BitTorrent Is Tapping into NSA Fears to Shake Its Criminal Image

The BitTorrent gang traveled to SXSW to remind Austin that torrenting is not a crime.
March 11, 2014, 11:30am
Images: BitTorrent and the author

In November, I wrote a story that used the word "BitTorrent" as a verb to mean to pirate digital content, and quickly received an email from Christian Averill, the communications director for BitTorrent the noun: a 140-person company in San Francisco. He wrote me to set the record straight: BitTorrent does not equal piracy. That's the message BitTorrent is now spreading at SXSW this year, where it's hosted a chill party and passed out swag with its meme-worthy slogan: "BitTorrent Is Not a Crime.”

"It's not a verb meaning to steal—but it has become one," VP of Marketing Matt Mason told me as we sat, along with Averill, drinking beers at a picnic table at the BitTorrent meetup. Mason's been working hard to draw attention to the uses of the BT protocol and client that are above bar, pushing relatively new products like the (legal) artist content in BitTorrent Bundles, a live video streaming service and app, and Sync, a server-free (and thus, NSA-proof) alternative to cloud storage like Dropbox.


It turns out Edward Snowden's bombshell leaks and the subsequent public interest in private data were very good for business at BitTorrent, which is now growing at a rapid clip. And the company's not afraid to play the NSA card to position themselves as good guys. Stickers that say “People Not Servers,” and “Protecting You From The NSA Since 2013,” are helping to reposition BitTorrent as a way to avoid government spooks and champion the free web, rather than, say, as a way to help pirates pillage content and rob artists (and giant movie studios and record companies) of their share.

When I asked Mason if BitTorrent, beloved by engineers and despised by Big Content, was a protocol, a business, a peer-to-peer technology, a product, or whatnot, he said "yes." Mainly, it's a decentralized way to move and store gigantic amounts of data around the internet peer-to-peer​, without servers. The list of major data-heavy institutions that use it is long, and includes Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, Wall Street, eBay, and the Human Genome Project.

These business clients are BitTorrent's bread and butter, and Mason said he expects demand to increase as A) the Internet of Things takes off and even more data starts to flood the web in unwieldy quantities, and B) regular folks start caring about whether or not their personal data is sitting on a corporate server that some government can access.

Once your data's on the cloud it's vulnerable to an NSA swoop, even with encryption; sharing the burden among the plethora of devices distributes and democratizes storage, so to speak. "The aggregate of all the laptops and mobile devices in the world is much bigger than any server farm," Mason said. BitTorrent’s now busy doubling down on the anti-surveillance zeitgeist by launching a server-less chat client, which was announced in September and is still in development.

Mason with Young Guru, Jay-Z's sound engineer and mixer

That's all well and good, but it doesn't mean people aren't still using the technology to illegally download loads of music, movies, and TV. They are. Of the most popular 10,000 pieces of content downloaded through the BitTorrent protocol, none was being offered legally, according to a report last year by anti-piracy firm NetNames. To this, the company falls back on the trusty "we can't control what people do" defense. It's also made an effort to offer legit alternatives, like its download bundles, which contain things like DRM-free music, behind-the-scenes and deleted content from feature films, and audiobook extras.

Like so many others, it's an attempt to put money in creators' pockets—basically to fix the very problem that BitTorrent is sometimes blamed for exacerbating. Artists sign up and post content direct to the site, and the company’s experimenting with a “pay gate” model by which an artist can decide how much to charge for their media package, or a single piece of content, or however they want to cut it.

While law enforcement and internet service providers and even VPNs remain skittish about the torrent protocol, the company continues to make a serious effort to shake a bad image. Between feeding artists, fighting the government, and "making the internet better," the BitTorrent gang pitches their software as a solution for the future, not a problem. At the end of the day, Mason told me, it's "a page and a half of code."