BitTorrent, the San Francisco-based company that develops the popular peer-to-peer Internet file transfer protocol of the same name, should not be blamed for online piracy, despite the fact that its technology is used extensively by consumers to share copyrighted material digitally.
In an interview with TechCentral, the company’s chief strategist, Shahi Ghanem, says BitTorrent is a technology company and does not endorse the use of its protocol for piracy. On the contrary, the company is working actively with content creators to find ways of using the BitTorrent technology to make their material available online in cost-effective ways using distributed computing, he says.
The BitTorrent protocol recently overtook the hypertext transfer protocol (the underpinning communications system of the Web) in terms of the total volume of traffic on the Internet. On any given day, BitTorrent accounts for between 20% and 40% of all online traffic. The company’s software — the µTorrent and BitTorrent clients — has been download more than 1bn times and has 150m active monthly users, or about twice that of social network Twitter.
The protocol is often blamed by content companies for facilitating online piracy — though the company has never been sued — and by Internet service providers for clogging up their networks. But Ghanem says BitTorrent is working proactively to deal with both of these concerns.
“We are very focused, in a legal way, on doing things that are good and legal with torrenting,” Ghanem says. “The only place we don’t dominate [with our client software] is in mainland China, where there are [software] clients that openly endorse copyright infringement and that’s not really a market we want to go into.”
He says BitTorrent has a “bad reputation” when it comes to piracy but the company is actively promoting legal and high-quality content. “Most people don’t know that we used to be one of the largest licensees of Hollywood content and that we have worked with dozens of artists to help them promote their content — everything from episodic television to webisodes to feature-length films.”
Blaming the technology that BitTorrent has developed for online piracy is nonsensical, Ghanem says. On that basis, Internet service providers, whose networks are used to carry unlicensed content, are equally to blame. “As a technology company we have the benefit of having one of the world’s most deployed technologies but this is at the detriment of being blamed for stuff that’s not our fault and well out of our control. We have no control over how people use our technology.”
The bad rap that BitTorrent has attracted is unfair, he believes. “If you want to get a great-quality file out onto the Internet, there is no more efficient way to do it than peer-to-peer networks.”
BitTorrent works by distributing the sharing of files to millions of computers around the world rather than relying on expensive data centre infrastructure. Millions of users give up a little processing power and bandwidth on their computers to create a worldwide network that allows people to share content with each other.
“Peer-based computing is a better way for the Internet to work,” Ghanem says. “It’s better, faster and cheaper. The reason the BitTorrent protocol was developed, much to people’s disbelief, was not to pirate content. It was invented to help with delivering large amounts of data over bad networks.”
Ghanem also believes Internet service providers that complain that BitTorrent traffic is drowning their networks and disadvantaging other users who want to browse the Web, check their e-mail or watch streaming video, are not being fair in their criticism — at least ever since the company developed something called µTP, or the Micro Transfer Protocol.
µTP is what Ghanem calls an “intelligent congestion-control algorithm” that minimises the disruptions that can be caused by BitTorrent traffic. “We received a lot of flak for clogging up the Internet,” he says. “We said, ‘Gosh, it’s not really us, it’s user behaviour, but let’s see if we can solve the problem’.”
µTP “ratchets down” BitTorrent traffic on service providers’ networks and prioritises other types of traffic, including video on demand, voice-over-Internet Protocol calls and Web browsing. Ghanem says µTP has “fundamentally changed the nature of the Internet”.
“We have gone from being a pariah in the operator market to a point where they want to work with us and deploy this technology in their local networks to do peer discovery and ensure their networks are healthy,” he continues. “As much as the BitTorrent protocol is maligned, this is something we spent as much time building and is one of the most significant enhancements to the Internet’s overall health in the last 20 years. Yet we get little credit for it.”
He decries service providers that “shape” network traffic, deprioritising or even blocking peer-to-peer protocols, warning they are harming their own customers. “BitTorrent traffic isn’t all bad,” he says. “People are sharing personal media files, educational content and TV stations are even broadcasting online via the Web using our technology. If you shape the protocol, you are fundamentally limiting your users from getting access to great content.”
As media files become larger — moving to high-definition formats — it’s a challenge that service providers are going to have to figure out. BitTorrent, the company, wants to encourage people to share even more information online, creating personal channels where they can upload and share rich media content about their lives with family, friends or anyone they choose to.
The company also hopes to entice hardware manufacturers to build its technology into televisions, set-top boxes, Blu-ray and DVD players, and media adapters.
“In this space, we are the anti-Apple,” Ghanem declares. “We believe in an open system where you can play any content on any device.”
The Apple TV set-top box has “material limitations”, he adds.
“I can have a nice experience with it, but only as long as the content is on iTunes and it’s all in a format that iTunes likes and it’s wrapped in Apple’s [digital rights management] technology. But it’s closed to everyone else. And if some of my content is encoded in ASF or WMV or a format that is not compatible with iTunes, or if I have someone else’s media adaptor, I don’t get this experience.” — Duncan McLeod, TechCentral
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