What if BitTorrent had a token?

John Backus
Jun 8, 2018 · 8 min read

BitTorrent’s protocol uses tit-for-tat game theory to encourage users to upload to others while they download. Still, if you use any torrent website you’ll notice a few things

  • Most downloaders close their client and stop seeding once they finish downloading
  • Older torrents trend towards having zero seeders
  • People share pirated content just for the sake of sharing

What if…

  • seeding files after you finished downloading meant you could access rare content in the future and make your downloads even faster
  • businesses invested time and money into helping make torrents fast and available for a long time
  • you could make money by sharing rare content others want

I think this is what file sharing could look like if it was supercharged by a token economy.

Adding the token

Let’s call our our torrent token “TRNT”. At the beginning of a download, a user might contact each peer seeding the file and ask about download costs. A seeder may reply with a proposal like this:

My rate is 1 TRNT/Mb per 100 Kbps.

So if I was downloading a 50 Mb file at 500 Kbps, I would end up paying 250 TRNT to the uploader.

I’m only interested in the high level vision for this post, so I’m simplifying a lot. I could do an entire blog post on caveats and ways to refine this negotiation.

New Users

New users still need a good experience

Seeding content earns tokens and leeching content spends tokens. How do new users join the system and download content without having to worry about tokens?

Seeders and new users could agree on short term token loans where the user pays back the seeder with interest. For example, the seeder might say

My usual rate is 1 TRNT/Mb per 100 Kbps. For every Mb I give you, you owe me 1.1 TRNT (10% interest).

For popular files, torrent clients could be fairly strategic about this. A new user could agree to this token loan, download a small but rare chunk of the file, then seed to other leechers until they pay off their debt and then some. A less popular file is riskier and might involve tokens earned from a future popular download.

If this tokenized BitTorrent protocol has a decentralized identity layer that accounts for IP address, these loans can be baked into the smart contracts such that token payments to the loan recipient would automatically be routed to the lender.

IP address on its own isn’t a perfect mechanism for preventing sybil attacks in this system, but it might actually go a long way given that IP addresses are also obviously necessary for peers to connect and transfer to each other. Have you ever tried to edit Wikipedia over Tor or a VPN? You’ll have a hard time because others already ruined the reputations of these shared IPs. It seems reasonable to assume that unused proxy IPs would be saturated quickly in this system.

Seed Boxes

High speed servers for faster uploading

Many private torrent trackers enforce a minimum upload/download ratio. Members get banned if they download more than 2x what they upload to other members. Private trackers have a number of perks:

  • Private trackers often have rare content you often can’t find elsewhere. Trent Reznor said OiNK was like “the world’s greatest record store. Pretty much anything you could ever imagine, it was there, and it was there in the format you wanted.”
  • Members share quality content quickly and help filter out bad content. New music albums are often shared same-day and TV shows are often uploaded without commercials within an hour of airing on TV
  • Downloads are really fast because more people seed

When people join private trackers, they don’t want to get banned. Some users will temporarily rent a seedbox to help get an “upload buffer.” Basically, seedbox owners will intentionally download and seed popular torrents quickly after they come out using a high-bandwidth server. Using a seedbox for a few weeks might result in you uploading 10x more than you’ve downloaded, buying you several years of not having to worry about your ratio after you’re done with the seedbox.

You don’t see these dynamics as much on public torrent trackers like The Pirate Bay because there aren’t penalties or rewards to encourage sharing. What if you could earn tokens by seeding content though? That would mean that all torrent websites have a built in financial incentive to seed content. You’ll earn a lot of tokens if you are one of the first users to seed a new episode of Game of Thrones!

Seed pools

If we tokenized BitTorrent, I think people would buy up seedboxes like people flocked to GPUs to mine Bitcoin in the early days. People might form seed pools (like mining pools) where specialized software identifies torrents that are likely to be popular so that members start seeding the content as soon as possible. Seeding pools would even out the risk of betting on particular torrents becoming popular. Tokens earned by members would be spread out among each participant in the pool, proportional to the bandwidth they dedicated.

Plenty of people would point their extra bandwidth at torrents if seeding them is an easy way to make money. I think this would quickly grow into an efficient market where specialized teams pounce on new content, vet the authenticity and quality, and then throw as much bandwidth behind the torrent as possible. The end result for people actually looking to download the latest episode of a popular TV show would be extremely fast downloads at competitive token prices.

I think seed pools would be end up being more popular than specialized firms running their own high speed servers since, like it or not, a lot of people would be seeding copyrighted content. Responsibility for seeding copyrighted content is diffused among a large network if each seed pool member makes their own decision about whether to download a particular torrent.

Speculative storage

The thrilling potential of data centers

We can think of high-bandwidth seeding wars as a market that turns bandwidth into a commodity. The other side of the coin would be commoditizing storage. One strategy would be to examine new torrents and ask the question

Is this content obscure enough that no one may be seeding it in a year, but popular enough that someone is likely to want to download it in the next few years?

An episode of Game of Thrones would not satisfy this question because it is popular enough that others will most likely still be seeding it in a year. A boring home video would also not qualify because people are never going to want to download that. Something like the director’s commentary for The Princess Bride would be perfect; the movie itself is too popular but the director’s commentary is obscure while still probably being valuable to some cult followers of the film.

Storage can get really cheap, especially if you want to save something once and you only plan to access once or twice in the future. Amazon Glacier charges $0.004/GB per month which means I could store a standard definition movie for 10 years with them and only pay $0.336.

So with this strategy, you predict which obscure content is a good long term bet, download the file, throw it in long term storage, and broadcast that you are a seeder for years. If someone needs it a year in the future, you can probably bet that you’re the only peer with the file. Once you get to this point, it is a game of negotiation; you’ve held on to this file for a long time and you should ask for as high a price as possible.

Torrent arbitrage

When you create a torrent, you have to specify which torrent trackers you are announcing the torrent to. There are a lot of popular public and private torrent websites and naturally there is some fragmentation between the different websites depending on who uploads where.

Another way people could earn easy tokens would be to mirror torrents to as many trackers as possible after you download something. Downloading a TV show from the Pirate Bay? Mirror it to EZTV and benefit from people downloading from there too. Downloading a movie? Mirror it to YTS.AM. There is a whole web of public trackers you could apply this strategy to.

Tokenized BitTorrent could kill private torrent websites that thrive on members uploading high quality content that takes longer to show up on public websites if it shows up at all. Arbitraging private trackers by being the first to upload to public trackers would be an easy opportunity to earn tokens and I’d be surprised if the arbitrage gap stayed open for long.

Everyone wins by content being mirrored to as many websites as possible. People running the arbitrage earn tokens and p2p file sharing networks become more redundant as more content is served up from multiple independent sources.

Bounty markets

Imagine if there was a decentralized marketplace where BitTorrent users could say

I’ll pay 100k TRNT tokens to anyone who uploads a DVD quality recording of “Solo: A Star Wars Story” before September 2018 when it is released on DVD.

Think about how many people would place bounties on the content they’re dying to get their hands on. This would create massive financial incentives for people in different industries to leak content in order to claim the millions of tokens people are offering in exchange.

This is also a hard problem to solve in terms of decentralized consensus for determining whether someone actually uploaded. Decentralized trust and identity will go a long way in helping with this.

I think introducing a decentralized identity concept and a protocol for negotiating token payments for transfers would take BitTorrent to the next level. Adding a token could introduce incredible financial incentives for people to

  • Put real professional bandwidth behind content people want. This would make BitTorrent even faster than it is today
  • Use long term storage to help seed torrents for years
  • Arbitrage torrents between different trackers, improving decentralization and raising content availability everywhere
  • Create real incentives for users to upload rare and desirable content

This isn’t an easy task, but I think it is a great example of a decentralized protocol that would massively benefit from a token economy.

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