Earlier this month, a series of mysterious billboards popped up around Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco. The ads made such proclamations as: "The Internet should be regulated" and "Your data should belong to the NSA."
For days, rumours swirled as to who was responsible. Finally, a San Francisco technology company came forward to claim responsibility – it defaced its own billboards, replacing the words "regulated" with "people-powered" and "the NSA" with "you."
The company in question turned out to be BitTorrent – the firm behind one of the most influential and controversial pieces of software in the history of the Internet.
Even though millions of users rely on BitTorrent's technology to download files, relatively few people know anything about the company behind the file-sharing platform. Located on the sixth-floor of a large office building near downtown San Francisco, BitTorrent has only about 120 employees. And yet on any given day, the company's software facilitates the largest single chunk of Internet traffic – as much as 40 per cent of the total, the company's executives say, easily dwarfing just about everything else.
But BitTorrent's success has come with significant controversy. A massive portion of all BitTorrent traffic is illegally traded, copyrighted content – movies, music and TV shows. While the company doesn't disclose figures, it makes money from ads on the free version of the BitTorrent software, and by selling a premium, ad-free version of it.
Instead of downloading content from a central location, BitTorrent users simultaneously upload and download tiny portions of a file to and from one another, creating a kind of swarm. And because the BitTorrent network relies on this type of distributed computing, rather than a central server, it is very difficult to shut down, making it ideal for the trading of copyrighted content.
Ever since the company was formed nine years ago, BitTorrent has struggled to define itself as anything but the facilitator of digital theft.
"We like to joke here that we've been going legit ever since 2004," says Matt Mason, BitTorrent's director of marketing.
And because Bram Cohen, the man who developed the BitTorrent technology in 2001, designed the software to be freely available and easy to modify, the meteoric growth of the network has happened largely out of BitTorrent's control. Today, myriad web sites and software tools unrelated to the company help millions of users pirate all manner of copyrighted content. That leaves BitTorrent with perhaps the most widely used Internet technology in the world, but few ways to make money or even keep its technology from constantly generating bad press.
But in the past month, the company has found itself with a unique marketing opportunity, thanks to the widespread revelation of U.S. Internet spying revealed by Edward Snowden. The news that spy shops such as the National Security Agency were working closely with technology firms to snoop on user data as part of programs such as PRISM proved extremely embarrassing for almost every major American technology company.
But for BitTorrent, the revelations only strengthened the argument that the company's technology should be the norm for Internet traffic, not some outpost frequented predominantly by content pirates. Because the BitTorrent technology relies on large amounts of users transmitting data to and from one another, there is no central server for spy agencies to access. Suddenly, the same technology that allowed users to download Hollywood blockbusters with relative impunity caught the eye of corporate clients worried about the integrity of their data.
"We liked the idea of an Internet architecture that's built without a heavy reliance on a centralized servers, and it's been really hard to communicate that to broader public because most people didn't know what a server was," Mr. Mason said. "That all changed after the PRISM scandal."
Now the company is trying to capitalize on the opportunity. It is already marketing an online chat service and a data synchronization tool – both of which don't use central servers. The tools have proven popular with security-conscious users and enterprise customers.
BitTorrent is also pushing a new kind of file format aimed at rehabilitating the company's reputation as a facilitator of piracy. Recently, the company introduced the so-called "gated Torrent." The file is similar to those used to download all manner of digital content, but it comes with a kind of built-in paywall. For example, an artist might make an album available in its entirety on BitTorrent, but the gated Torrent file will only let the user listen to the first song for free – to access the rest of the file, the user must complete some kind of task specified by the gate, such as liking the artist on Facebook or simply paying for the content. The company says the format is attracting interest, and BitTorrent has already worked with the likes of Madonna, Moby and The Pixies on content distribution deals.
But for the San Francisco company, the longer-term vision for BitTorrent's future is something far more audacious. The company's executives see BitTorrent at the centre of the next pillar of Internet communication. Just as Facebook has become the company at the centre of social networking and Google occupies the same role in the world of search, BitTorrent is trying to become the default name in distributed computing – an area that is growing at a fast pace.
If it succeeds, BitTorrent may finally be able to shake off its reputation as little more than a tool to download movies. Indeed, its people-powered network – the source of so much criticism over the years – may become its most profitable asset.
"We think that privacy and control and efficiency are better served if the end of the network is where the intelligence is," Mr. Mason said.
How torrents work
- User opens a Web page and clicks on a link for the file he wants.
- The user’s BitTorrent software communicates with a set of instructions called a “tracker” to find other computers running BitTorrent that have the complete file (called "seed computers") and those with a portion of the file ("peers" that are usually in the process of downloading the file).
- The tracker helps the user’s software trade pieces of the desired file with other computers.
- Instead of downloading content from a central location, BitTorrent users simultaneously upload and download tiny portions of a file to and from one another, creating a kind of "swarm." Because the BitTorrent technology relies on large amounts of users transmitting data to and from one another, there is no central server for spy agencies to access.
Illustration by Matthew Bambach