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BitTorrent's Battle Against Itself

By revolutionizing how we share stuff, BitTorrent also backed itself into a corner that it now seems desperate to escape from—using the same tools that made it what it is.

by Patrick McGuire
Apr 26 2013, 4:30pm
Photo by Leo Amato

By building a decentralized, file-sharing tool capable of moving large amounts of data across the Internet without relying on servers to do all the heavy lifting, BitTorrent didn't just give us all what amounted to a free TiVo with access to most of the world's pirated music and video: in one fell swoop, it revolutionized the Internet and upended the entertainment industry. Today, the start-up behind the software says it has 160 million people using its two official software clients, BitTorrent and μTorrent, to upload and download files—a number that amounts to more than Hulu, Spotify, and Netflix, combined and doubled.

But in doing all of that, the company also backed itself into a corner that it now seems determined to escape from.

Now the 110-person-strong San Francisco-based company—yes, it isn't just a couple of dudes in a basement—is desperate to look legit. Besides working aggressively on its public image, BitTorrent has some new strategies up its sleeve. It just launched a Dropbox-like file-syncing service called BitTorrent Sync, which allows you to store encrypted files not on the cloud, but across multiple computers, using the same peer-to-peer file sharing system that powers BitTorrent clients. It's got a new WeTransfer-like file-collaboration site called SoShare. There's a new Google Chrome plugin that lets you search BitTorrent from the browser. 

Under the leadership of BitTorrent's inventor, Bram Cohen, the company also hopes to join forces with the same industries it's spent years disrupting. It's packaging and "leaking" fresh content, partnering with writers like Tim Ferriss, indie films like Arthur Newman, and artists like the YouTube-famous indie pop singer Alex Day. By helping Day to release his latest album, complete with bonus stems and video content, BitTorrent says it drove an additional 60,000 users to his iTunes page.

And then there's BitTorrent Live. For years, Cohen has been developing a new BitTorrent protocol that would apply the elegance of decentralized peer-to-peer networks to streaming video, an activity that dominates over 50 percent of all Internet traffic. Instead of livestreams crashing when they’re overloaded (ie, what we’re currently used to), a live Justin Bieber concert—or whatever else is going to make a billion computers ‘pute at once—BitTorrent Live streams that content stably, quickly and without the need for a central cloud. The result: the more people streaming, the more reliable the stream becomes, not less.

This new gambit could also be risky, again threatening the powers that be: by unleashing a P2P streaming protocol without any kind of restrictions, the company would be putting all of the tools needed for global broadcasting right into the hands of the consumer, just like it did with the old BitTorrent. And as the saga of TV-streaming services like Aereo illustrates, that would not make the entertainment industry very happy, to say the least. 

To get a better grasp on the delicate future of the company, I met with Matt Mason, the former pirate radio DJ who now works as BitTorrent's Executive Director of Marketing and Content. You may remember him from his book about the future of piracy, "The Pirates' Dilemma," and as host of the documentary on "London Pirate Radio" we made a few years ago. Now he’s in charge of the branding and technology that BitTorrent is facing as it pushes hard for legitimacy.

MOTHERBOARD: You guys have a weird problem as a brand. On the one hand you’re BitTorrent—and all sorts of pirate internet traffic is often called BitTorrent, by people who don’t distinguish between you guys as a company and your own technology. On the other hand...

Matt Mason: Yeah, it’s weird, I’ve been at BitTorrent for just over a year and I didn’t think things would change as quickly as they have. But one other good social stat that I saw last week was that we’re now, if you look at all of the conversation in the last week about BitTorrent, it’s now like 97% positive. Which is insane.

How do you gauge positivity?

Positivity for us is when people aren’t talking about BitTorrent as a pirating tool, but rather they’re talking about it as a technology. Or as a place where they found something awesome. We have a huge data science team at BitTorrent. And we really drill down into that stuff. It’s weird, it’s becoming one of the coolest brands in the world, that’s why I joined. People look at BitTorrent, like, “Yeah, those guys are fucked. Hollywood hates them.” But Hollywood is trying to work with us more and more; even though a lot of people are still very scared of us.

Matt Mason. Photo by PopTech

I can imagine. And it makes sense given what your technology is capable of. Let’s talk about BitTorrent’s livestreaming technology: BitTorrent Live. It's meant to be impervious to traffic overload?

Yeah, completely. We don’t look at like Ustream and Livestream as competition; they should be using our protocol too. It would save them millions and millions of dollars. We looked at BitTorrent Live as a really good, positive thing to build for society. So Bram Cohen, who invented the BitTorrent protocol, invented BitTorrent Live. He spent about five years working on it. The reason we’ve taken such a long time to release it is because it’s like a nuclear technology. On the one hand, commercially, it’s amazing. You could stream a Superbowl game for zero dollars. That’s cool.

Yeah, and kind of funny.

And scary, right? If you’re ESPN, and BitTorrent and ESPN work together, it’s awesome for ESPN. They just saved a ton of money.

But if you just release it out of nowhere…

If I jack ESPN’s feed and I start streaming the Superbowl to twenty million people and selling ads around it—that’s not great for ESPN.

And pirate streams already exist. They’re just really blurry and prone to overloading. But whenever your technology does get released, people are going to figure out how to use it for piracy. Right?

That’s why we’ve taken five years to release it. Bram’s whole thing was, “I don’t just want to throw it out there, because I did that with BitTorrent.” And you know, the benefits of BitTorrent definitely outweigh the costs, but he’s like: “Let’s do this the right way.” And that’s what we’re doing. So we’ve had it in a closed beta for the last three months. We had like 50 broadcasters using it 24/7, just to fix bugs and test whether or not it actually works, and the scale. And it does. So we opened the beta in March.

But really though, despite how long it’ll take to put it out, when it’s out there people are going to be able to harness it to pirate streams, no?

Well, it is not open source and we will be able to shut things down under the DMCA process. So we didn’t do what we did with BitTorrent.

HTTP is the wrong protocol for the Internet. It’s great, but we need something else to do large media because that’s where we’re going to be moving in ten years.

Bram Cohen, BitTorrent's founder and chief scientist. Photo by Thomas Hawk

BitTorrent is like the Wild West.

BitTorrent is completely open source. It’s literally an open source protocol, a way of doing things. We could shut down BitTorrent inc. tomorrow. BitTorrent would still very likely be the way people are moving large files in ten years time. Like, it’s just a way of doing things that so deeply ingrained in the internet now, that it’s just there.

It reminds me of SETI@Home--the screensaver designed to track down real aliens. Distributed computing is only now reaching a more mainstream awareness. Sony just started shipping Playstation 3s with that cancer cell research tool. But distributed computing has so much more potential.

There’s people using BitTorrent for cancer research in Silicon Valley. The reason Bram invented BitTorrent was that he realized hypertext was not the thing we’re going to be moving large amounts of data with. HTTP is the wrong protocol for the internet. It’s great, but we need something else to do large media because that’s where we’re going to be moving in ten years.

So you’re saying Bittorrent will become bigger than hypertext?

Oh it already has. We’re already bigger than HTTP in terms of sheer data. Don’t think we’re trying to replace it. We need pictures and words as well; it’s part of the technology. But we’re there too, right? So during the first ten years it was, “BitTorrent is piracy.” It’s bad because the only people who figured it out, predominantly wanted to set up piracy websites. It wasn’t us, it’s not us, it’s not what we do. There’s 120 of us in San Francisco, all we’re doing is figuring out how BitTorrent fits in with the internet.

We built this thing called uTP (uTorrent Traffic Protocol) that nobody knows about. It’s to save every ISP in the world billions of dollars. We built it at the height of the Internet neutrality debate. UTP is now inside the BitTorrent protocol, it’s part of it. It’s a traffic congestion protocol—it dials back BitTorrent traffic at peak times on the Internet. So if you’re using BitTorrent and you decide to make a Skype call, or watch a YouTube video, or jump on the web—it will prioritize that stuff over what you’re doing on BitTorrent. So what that means is, if you make a Skype call and your BitTorrent traffic dials back, that’s good for you, but it’s also good for everybody in the square mile of your neighborhood. It’s completely self-regulating. Nobody gets throttled. Then at peak times on the Internet you see BitTorrent usage drop down and web usage go up. And then BitTorrent dials back up when people go to bed. So the biggest win we saw in this was, when we implemented it, Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix came out and said Netflix now has more traffic in the US than BitTorrent—and we were like, “Good. It’s working.” They were like, “We beat them!” And we were like, “You’re welcome.”

Musicians started calling Edison a pirate. “This guy is going to ruin us.” Nobody saw the music industry coming. Nobody saw BitTorrent coming. Everybody saw it as piracy. But all of the things we’re trying to do now as a society on the Internet can be made easier with distributed technology.

Has your position on piracy changed since you became a marketer at BitTorrent?

I think it’s stayed the same. The way to beat piracy is by legitimizing or copying the pirates. The thing we’re trying to do at BitTorrent is to legitimize this ecosystem because clearly there is value in it. I was a pirate radio DJ growing up in London and saw immense value in pirate radio. It’s how records happened, how grime happened, how dubstep happened, how drum and bass happened, all this stuff, it happened there. And it’s a bunch of kids sticking scaffolding poles to the side of tower blocks. And it’s going away because the Internet is taking its place.

It’s a better medium, ultimately. Pirate radio was great because it was a better medium than radio, for people who wanted to hear new shit that wasn’t spoon-fed to them. So I guess I see what you’re saying. But I do believe that piracy isn’t so popular because people like to steal—it’s because it provides a better service model. BitTorrent makes more sense to me than a cable subscription.

I joined BitTorrent after I met the CEO, Eric Klinker, in 2011. We were both speaking at a conference and I was there doing my "pirate’s dilemma" stump speech. He was on stage next and said, “What we’re trying to do at BitTorrent is solve the pirate’s dilemma—and here’s how.” He laid out what their big experiments were: how they helped a TV show (just with donations from fans watching the show) go from pilot to a full season that was completely funded by fans. That completely blew my mind, because I’d seen a friend of mine make a four million dollar pilot with NBC and then that thing got canned. I was like, “Holy shit, this is where it’s at.”

For the first ten years of BitTorrent’s history, it was a misunderstood technology. The same way VHS or MP3s or the record player was. When Edison invented the record player, musicians saw a guy who had created a tool that made an exact reproduction of the thing they needed to earn money. It reproduced live performances—it was like buying record players and using them in bars. And musicians started calling Edison a pirate. “This guy is going to ruin us.” Nobody saw the music industry coming. Nobody saw BitTorrent coming. Everybody saw it as piracy. That’s not what it is, that’s not what it’s about. All of the things we’re trying to do now as a society on the internet, can be made easier with distributed technology. There’s things happening now to BitTorrent that didn’t used to happen to us as a company…

Like what?

This year at CES, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the big thing people were talking about was 4K TVs. A 4K movie is this giant thing that looks beautiful. It’s not 3D TV. It’s not a shitty experience where you need glasses.

It just looks great.

And it’s a giant fucking file. It looks amazing. Even if you play a 4K file on a 1080 TV, it looks way better than regular 1080. It’s really cool.

How do you distribute 4K files?

The only way to do it is BitTorrent. We saw 4K, we were there, we’re always at CES, we do a lot of consumer electronics stuff, because BitTorrent’s baked into a lot of products, like TVs, things like that. We’ve got deals in place with twenty different companies. You can buy BitTorrent-certified TVs in Russia and Asia.

That's awesome. How is BitTorrent looking to push the Internet forward now?

We’re going to keep experimenting with artists and content creators, putting good stuff out there. The things we put out now are going to be alphas and prototypes of the things we’re building, of an ecosystem based on better discovery, better publishing, better aggregation of legitimate content in BitTorrent. The thing no one has tried to build is a distributed solution to the problems of the content industry. That’s what we’re doing right now.

Follow Patrick on Twitter: @patrickmcguire

Peer to peer
bram cohen
pirate's dilemma