Beyond good and evil

Analysis: The battle for BitTorrent’s soul

We’ve just passed the 11th anniversary of the introduction of BitTorrent, a file-sharing protocol which has become the scourge of the media industries. Bram Cohen’s creation made it easier than ever to share huge files across the internet, making piracy of films and TV shows as common as music piracy.

In 2004, Cohen founded BitTorrent, Inc., which has remained the respectable face of the technology for the past eight years by promoting legal sources of torrent content. However, it has faced a constant uphill battle, and recent developments have highlighted the technology’s split personality - and the ideological battle between the company and the community for BitTorrent’s soul.

Building the ultimate piracy tool: the “bad” BitTorrent

Boxopus made headlines at the end of last month with a service described as a “pirate’s dream come true” - able to download the content torrent files on its own servers and send them directly to your Dropbox. By handling the download process ‘in the cloud’, Boxopus promised to make it simpler and safer.

Just two days later, Dropbox blocked Boxopus - presumably fearing that their service would become known as a harbour for pirates if Boxopus took off. The project is now looking into other services to connect to instead, likely Google Drive if a recent user survey is anything to go by.

While free in beta, Boxopus plans to charge for bandwidth use in the future. Customers are essentially paying for the ability to download a torrent from anywhere, with the promise of absolute anonymity.

Although Boxopus describes the process as “grab[bing] the file you need and put[ting] it in your Dropbox”, there’s another name that’s equally appropriate: smuggling.

There are plenty of ways to stay anonymous while using BitTorrent, but leaving a third-party service to do your dirty work for you is probably the riskiest. In theory, it’s foolproof; in practice, your entire downloading history may be exposed to the authorities if your partner in crime squeals. And it’s written into Boxtopus’ own privacy terms (emphasis added):

Boxopus may disclose Personally Identifiable Information if required to do so by law or in the belief that such action is necessary to: (a) comply with law or legal process, court order or a subpoena served on Boxopus or the Site to cooperate with law enforcement authorities; (b) investigate, prevent or take action regarding suspected or actual illegal activity or fraud on the Site; (c) protect and defend the rights, property or safety of us or Service Providers (defined below), licensees, business partners, agents, customers, users, or others; or (d) act in situations involving actual or potential threats to the physical safety of any person, violations of our agreements, abuse of this Site, security breaches of this Site, or as necessary to protect our systems, business, users or others.

So, far from being a “pirate’s dream come true”, using a third-party like Boxopus to download torrents for you is an expensive liability. If you’re using BitTorrent legally, then why pay someone else to download a file for you?

But as the authorities becomes increasingly savvy in identifying and prosecuting serial file-sharers we may see more “torrent smugglers”, promising anonymous downloads for a small fee.

Regardless of whether it’s effective, Boxopus is yet another example of time and money being sunk into making BitTorrent more resilient to shutdown by the authorities. This version of the technology’s future is of the ultimate piracy tool: safe to use and forever active.

Corporate, user-friendly file-swapping: The “good” BitTorrent

BitTorrent’s other future, and the one promoted by BitTorrent, Inc., is expanding the technology beyond just the illegal downloading of copyrighted materials.

After all, there are plenty of legal uses already. BitTorrent as a protocol has been adopted by other companies needing to distribute large files: Facebook uses it to push updates out to its servers, while Blizzard (developer of World of Warcraft and Diablo III) uses a proprietary BitTorrent client to patch their games.

Yet despite these high-profile uses, ‘BitTorrent’ is still a dirty word, synonymous with piracy. No wonder the company that shares its name with the protocol is looking to clean up its reputation. If you want to see their vision of BitTorrent’s future, just take a look through a couple of pages of their blog: legally-distributed movies and albums, BitTorrent-based backup services, and the recently-announced Torque (which we’ll get to in a bit).

Most indicative of their future direction is a new desktop app for sending large files between individuals using BitTorrent technology, released in January with the working title ‘Share’. As the pitch reads:

Have you ever been stuck trying to send an HD home movie to a friend over the Internet? Or a batch of high-resolution photos? How about longer smartphone videos?

It’s not easy. You can try a complicated FTP service. Or pay big fees for a file sharing or cloud service. Or dramatically reduce the size, quality or length of your creation to send via email or social networks.

Sending large files to a friend via BitTorrent makes perfect sense, and it's a great use of the technology. BitTorrent, Inc. see this is such an important use of their protocol that they intend to incorporate it into uTorrent and other clients. There’s potential for piracy, sure, but it’s no greater than with standard emails.

It seems like a no-brainer - so why, after 11 years, has it only come to the official app? Perhaps because BitTorrent’s primary users have no interest. A comment by ‘mynameishare’ on TorrentFreak’s coverage states: “Vuze had sharing with friends, no one wanted it”.

BitTorrent in the browser

So what can we make of BitTorrent, Inc.’s latest development? Torque is a browser plugin which uses the open-source btapp.js to provide a backend for web-based BitTorrent apps. It’s a smart move, considering the increasing trend towards users performing everything in the browser. (The other recent software trend is of course towards Android and iOS, but BitTorrent clients are already available on the former and aren’t allowed on the latter.)

Using a browser plugin seems a bit archaic in the world of HTML5 and jQuery, but once installed it works beautifully. One initial example of the technology at work is OneClick, a Chrome
extension that promises to integrate torrents identically to regular downloads and tidy away its P2P aspect. Unfortunately we were unable to install the current version of the plugin, but essentially it promises to make downloading of public torrent files easier than ever.

On the opposite side of spectrum is the second Torque experiment, PaddleOver, which works similarly to the desktop app Share in that it allows private sharing of files between individuals. Once the Torque plugin is installed, PaddleOver works brilliantly, delivering files straight to the download folder with a simple drag-and-drop interface.

Both were developed by Patrick Williams, Engineering Lead at BitTorrent, Inc. - suggesting that even BitTorrent, Inc. themselves are unsure which way they are taking the company.

The battle for BitTorrent may already be won


Screenshot courtesy of TorrentFreak.

What is BitTorrent? Is it a way for independent creatives to distribute their work for free? Is it a flag for pirates to rally beneath? Is it a company working to innovate the world of file-sharing? Or is it just a neutral protocol for distributing large files?

Perhaps the pirates have already won this battle. It’s rumoured that BitTorrent, Inc. is planning to rebrand itself as ‘Gyre’ - which, if true, is likely an admission that the brand they have spent eight years building is toxic when it comes to anything outside of illegal file-sharing.

In that case, BitTorrent will truly be a technology of two halves: Gyre, the legal, corporate side, promoting free private file-sharing; and on the other side BitTorrent, a tool for illegal sharing of copyrighted media - and the occasional Linux distribution.

Get more news, features and analysis by subscribing to webdev360 on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or Google Reader

Elliot Bentley

What do you think?

JAX Magazine - 2014 - 06 Exclucively for iPad users JAX Magazine on Android


Latest opinions