December 21, 2004

Mark Pesce on BitTorrent: Chaos is Your Metaphor

Susan Mernit posts Mark Pesce's email on BitTorrent. Best part is the ending:

Subject: Out of Control: The Sequel
From: - "Mark Pesce"
Date: - Mon, December 20, 2004 6:35 am

Out of Control: The Sequel

This morning I woke up to find that the torrent had died. Someone - no
one knows who - had put enough pressure onto the operators of and to shut them down. was
amazing, the Wal-Mart of torrents, a great big marketplace of piracy,
all neatly dished up and aiming to please. You want this new Hollywood
release? Here's a recording from someone who smuggled a camcorder into
a screening. - How about the latest episode of that hit HBO series?
There you go, and no subscription fees to pay. Just fire up your
favorite BitTorrent client - BitTornado, Azureus, Tomato, or that good
old-fashioned Bram Cohen code. Click on the torrent, and you're up and
downloading, sharing what you're getting with hundreds of others. Share
and share alike. What could be more friendly?

For those of you who found the last paragraph littered with weird
gobblygook, here's your opportunity to come up to speed: BitTorrent is a
computer protocol (a language computers use when communicating with each
other) which allows computers to freely and efficiently share
information with one another. This free-for-all of sharing is often
called peer-to-peer or P2P, and it has become one of the most popular
activities on the Internet. Many of you have heard how the record
companies are deathly afraid that their markets are about to evaporate
as their customers move from buying CDs to downloading pirated music.
This much is true: for the last several years, peer-to-peer software has
been used to help people find audio files on the internet - files being
offered up by other people for you to download, anonymously. Find a
song, click on it, and down it comes to your computer's hard drive.

All of this song swapping began before most Americans had access to
high-speed "broadband" internet connections. But, as of a month ago,
just about half of the home users in the USA access the Internet through
a broadband connection. These connections are anywhere from 10 and 50
times faster than the earlier "dial-up" connections which tied up phone
lines and kept you waiting for what seemed like weeks as you struggled
to download the latest gossip from your favorite website. While it
takes some time to download music over a dial-up connection, you'd only
wait about ten minutes for an average song. Movies and TV shows, which
are much "richer" (more data), take a lot more time to download. The
new U2 album, for example, might contain 45 million bytes of data. But
an episode of "Six Feet Under" - roughly the same length - would
probably run to 450 million bytes of information, ten times the amount.
Coincidentally, that's how much faster internet connections are,
compared to a few years ago.

This increase in bandwidth has led to an enormous underground trade in
all sorts of audiovisual media. It's not just current movies - classics
and cult films are available. (I downloaded Russ Meyer's Beyond the
Valley of the Dolls the day he died, watching it that evening, my homage
to the great schlock director.) And, more significantly, nearly every
new TV show that airs in the US or the UK is almost instantaneously
available globally, because someone watching that show is recording it
to their hard disk, publishing the recording to the Internet. This
isn't rocket science: computer peripherals which convert TV signals to
digital data cost less than $100, and millions of them are out there

If you're just one person with one recording of one show, and it's a
popular show, your computer's internet connection is going to get
swamped with requests for the show; eventually your computer will crash
or you'll take the show off the Internet, just so you can read your
email. And in the early days of peer-to-peer, that's how it was.
Someone would find a computer with a copy of the song they wanted to
listen to, connect to that computer, and download the data. It worked,
but anything that got very popular was likely to disappear almost
immediately. Popularity was a problem in first-generation peer-to-peer

In November 2002, an unemployed programmer named Bram Cohen decided
there had to be a better way, so he spent a few weeks writing an
improved version of the protocols used to create peer-to-peer networks,
and came up with BitTorrent. BitTorrent is a radical advance over the
peer-to-peer systems which preceded it. Cohen realized that popularity
is a good thing, and designed BitTorrent to take advantage of it. When
a file (movie, music, computer program, it's all just bits) is published
on BitTorrent, everyone who wants the file is required to share what
they have with everyone else. As you're downloading the file, those
parts you've already downloaded are available to other people looking to
download the file. This means that you're not just "leeching" the file,
taking without giving back; you're also sharing the file with anyone
else who wants it. As more people download the file, they offer up what
they've downloaded, and so on. As this process rolls on, there are
always more and more computers to download the file from. If a file
gets very popular, you might be getting bits of it from hundreds of
different computers, all over the Internet - simultaneously. This is a
very important point, because it means that as BitTorrent files grow in
popularity, they become progressively faster to download. Popularity
isn't a scourge in BitTorrent - it's a blessing.

It's such a blessing that, as of November, 35% of all traffic on the
Internet was BitTorrent-related. Unfortunately, that blessing looks more
like a curse if you're the head of a Hollywood studio, trying to fill
seats in megaplexes or move millions of units of your latest DVDs
releases. And, although BitTorrent is efficient, it isn't designed to
make data piracy easy; BitTorrent relies on a lot of information which
can be used to trace the location of every single user downloading a
file, and, more significantly, it also relies on a centralized "tracker"
- a computer program which registers the requests for the file, and
tells a requester how to hook up to the tens or hundreds of other
computers offering pieces of the file for download.

As any good network engineer knows (and I was a network engineer for
over a decade), a single point of failure (a single computer offering a
single torrent tracker) is a Bad Thing to have in a network. It's the
one shortcoming in Cohen's design for BitTorrent: kill the tracker and
you've killed the torrent. But network engineers know better than to
design systems with single points of failure: that's one of the reasons
the Internet is still around, despite the best efforts of hackers around
the world to kill it. Failure in any one part of the Internet is
expected and dealt with in short order. Various parts of the Internet
fail all the time and you only very rarely notice.

Back to today, when the hammer came down. and each played host to thousands of BitTorrent trackers.
When these sites went down the torrents went Poof!, as if they'd never
existed. This evening the members of the MPAA must be feeling quite
satisfied with themselves - they see this danger as passed; never again
will BitTorrent threaten the revenues of the Hollywood studios.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

As Hollywood is so fond of sequels, it seems perfectly fitting that
today's suppression of the leading BitTorrent sites bears an uncanny
resemblance to an event which took place in July of 2000. Facing a
rising sea of lawsuits and numerous court orders demanding an immediate
shutdown, the archetypal peer-to-peer service, Napster, pulled the plug
on its own servers, silencing the millions of users who used the service
as a central exchange to locate songs to download. That should have
been the end of that. But it wasn't. Instead, the number of songs
traded on the Internet today dwarfs the number traded in Napster's
heyday. The suppression of Napster led to a profusion of alternatives -
Gnutella, Kazaa, and BitTorrent.

Gnutella is a particularly telling example of how the suppression of a
seductive technology (and peer-to-peer file trading is very seductive -
ask anyone who's done it) only results in an improved technology taking
its place. Instead of relying on a centralized server - a fault that
both Napster and BitTorrent share - Gnutella uses a process of discovery
to let peers share information with each other about what's available
where. The peers in a Gnutella peer-to-peer network self-organize into
an occasionally unreliable but undeniably expansive network of content.
Because of its distributed nature, shutting down any one Gnutella peer
has only a very limited effect on the overall network. One individual's
collection of music might evaporate, but there are still tens of
thousands of others to pick from. This network of Gnutella peers (and
its offspring, such as Kazaa, BearShare, and Acquisition) has been
growing since its introduction in 2001, mostly invisibly, but ever more

If Napster hadn't been run out of business by the RIAA, it's unlikely
that any need for Gnutella would have arisen; if the RIAA hadn't
attacked that single point of failure, there'd have been no need to
develop a solution which, by design, has no single point to failure.
It's as though both sides in the war over piracy and file sharing are
engaged in an evolutionary struggle: every time one side comes up with a
new strategy, the other side evolves a response to it. This isn't just
a cat-and-mouse game; each attack by the RIAA, generates a response of
increasing sophistication. And, today, the MPAA has blundered into this
arms race. This was, as will soon be seen, a Very Bad Idea.

Pointing up the single greatest weakness of BitTorrent take down the
tracker and the torrent dies - has only served to energize, inspire and
mobilize the resources of an entire global ecology of software
developers, network engineers and hackers-at-large who want nothing so
much, at this moment, as to make the MPAA pay for their insolence.
Imagine a parent reaching into a child's room and ripping a TV set out
of the wall while the child is watching it. That child would feel anger
and begin plotting his revenge. And that scene has been multiplied at
least hundred thousand times today, all around the world. It is quite
likely that, as I type these words, somewhere in the world a roomful of
college CS students, fueled by coke and pizza and righteous indignation,
are banging out some code which will fix the inherent weakness of
BitTorrent - removing the need for a single tracker. If they're smart
enough, they'll work out a system of dynamic trackers, which could
quickly pass control back and forth among a cloud of peers, so that no
one peer holds the hot potato long enough to be noticed. They'll take
the best of Gnutella and cross-breed it with the best of BitTorrent.
And that will be the MPAA's worst nightmare.

Hey, Hollywood! Can you feel the future slipping through your fingers?
Do you understand how badly you've screwed up? You took a perfectly
serviceable situation - a nice, centralized system for the distribution of media, and, through your own greed and shortsightedness, are giving birth to a system of digital distribution that you'll never, ever be able to defeat. In your avarice and arrogance you ignored the obvious: you should have cut a deal with In partnership you could have found a way to manage the disruptive change that's already well underway. Instead, you have repeated the mistakes made by the recording industry, chapter and verse. And thus you have spelled your own doom.

It's said that the best sequels are just like the original, only bigger and louder. Ladies and gentlemen, prepare yourselves for one hell of a crash. This baby is now fully out of control.

Mark Pesce
20 December 2004
Released under the Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

Posted by Mary Hodder at December 21, 2004 04:55 PM | TrackBack

" and each played host to thousands of BitTorrent trackers."

This is untrue (for the former, at least). SuprNova did not, as a rule host torrents.

Posted by: at December 21, 2004 10:03 PM

This article did not discuss the other interesting battle in P2P networks - anonymity. Sure you can build fault tolerant P2P systems but as long as RIAA and MPAA can sue people for breaking copyright they will be able to intimidate such networks out of existance - at least in the USA. Other countries wont be as obliging and there will always be some country in the world willing to play host to such "services" (as there are ones to service the tax dodging corporations).

However the anonymity battle is already well under way, check out Tor, I2P, Mute, Waste and Freenet. All are well on the way to achieving my dream of an anonynet (see my blog) where anonymity is guaranteed and implicit in the network infrastructure. It has a lot of consequences - many of them bad, but it lets the citizens of that anonymous world form their own rules and not have them handed down from high.

However the consequences of anonymity by whatever means will just ensure that our freedom loving government will eventually seek, and probably succeed, in banning all access, attempts to access and technologies to create and access such networks. Wait for it - its all part of the "ownership society" they want to create. If you cannot guarantee the value and security of owned goods then the ownership society will fail - hence its security must be enforced by the full force of the law.

The problem, as I might misquote, is that "freedom will find a way" and eventually it will become evident that the ONLY way to deal with this huge problem of copyright is to actually just TRUST people and give them a society and life in which trustworthiness is a worthwhile valuable asset to have. I believe that is exactly the kind of society that the anonynet would foster.

As an example of trust - if the TV companies would just TRUST ME with a permanent digital copy of their content then I'd be willing to TRUST THEM to deliver good ad-free content for a reasonable fee. I'd be willing to pay a nonimal fee to watch it on a show by show basis, say $1 an hour instead of the smogesboard $80 or more a month cable companies want to charge. And if they would just sell me inalienable rights to view or listen to their content converted to whatever the latest standards of digital delivery are (so when CDs are obsolete I'm not forced to buy again) then I would be willing to pay the $20 or so a CD or DVD they want to charge. But when that content is likely to be obsolete or heavily protected against fair uses - forget it! I think iPod users may be breaking new territory, but I think they are being ripped off for what they are getting in terms of longevity of their purchases.

Like I said, MPAA and RIAA need to stop ripping off customers and start treating them like partners in the content production-consuming process. Without RIAA and MPA we'll just go somewhere else for our content and don't imagine for a second we'll never be able to find that alternative. Its out there already.

Posted by: Blog Gently at December 22, 2004 12:22 AM