Why BitTorrent Mattered — Bittorrent Lessons for Crypto (1 of 4)

The End of an Era

When BitTorrent Inc was sold earlier this year to Chinese cryptocurrency organization TRON (or, more precisely, to Justin Yuchen Sun, TRON’s founder) it was truly the end of an era. BitTorrent Inc was wrapped into the TRON organization. Thus vanished the company most closely associated for almost 15 years with the Bittorrent ecosystem. Remaining employees are all now ‘TRON employees’ and the mission is now identical to TRON’s.

All told I worked at BitTorrent Inc. for almost 10 years working at various times in product, data science, strategy and general management. In that time the company pioneered many R&D projects to deploy decentralized technologies for use cases such as content delivery networks, folder synch, file sending, p2p communications, web publishing and live streaming. In the Fall of 2017 the company started work on a project to develop a cryptocurrency integrated into the heart of the protocol — work which led, somewhat unexpectedly, to the company’s acquisition.

Having spent so much time close to what was perhaps the most broadly deployed decentralized technology yet, I’d like to share some thoughts on how the world of Bittorrent played out and what the lessons may be for the world of Bitcoin and the wider ‘crypto’ or ‘blockchain’ industry.

It’s worth starting with a little background on Bittorrent. Over the years many people have heard of Bittorrent, and most who have think it has something to do with illegal online file-sharing. But many people are surprised to learn that there is a company called BitTorrent Inc.

In describing Bittorrent I have always tried to differentiate between three different things: Bittorrent technology — an ingenious p2p file transfer protocol invented by Bram Cohen in 2001, BitTorrent Inc — a company co-founded by Bram Cohen and Ashwin Navin in 2004 to pursue commercial applications of Bram’s invention, and the Bittorrent ecosystem — a huge and leaderless community of users and entities which coalesced around the largely illicit sharing of popular files online which were often media files protected by various copyright laws.

Bittorrent technology

At its heart Bittorrent technology is a file distribution protocol. It was designed to enable the distribution of large and popular files across the internet without the need for provisioning very large servers with huge available bandwidth. Unlike cryptocurrencies, there is no ‘token’ involved — instead the economics behind the system rely on transient barter relationships where peers choose to share more with counter-parties which have already shared with them. Further specifics of how it works don’t matter here, but its worth mentioning that the very technical design objectives were important later in protecting the founders and the company from direct attack. Bram’s objective was never to enable copyright infringement or make obsolete a decades-old multi-billion dollar industry around selling copies of media files. And yet his invention led in a fairly straight line to that destination.

As a result of its innocent objectives, even though Bittorrent technology found such spectacular popularity in illicit sharing of media files that at times it risked swamping available ISP bandwidth, the step that ISPs might have taken to eliminate it never actually arrived. There were plenty of ominous signals as well as a spirited defense coalescing around the broader net neutrality movement. But the lack of any illegal intent and the presence of what lawyers termed ‘substantial non-infringing use-cases’ ultimately helped insulate Bittorrent technology from serious ISP-level or state-level intervention.

Certainly there were plenty of ISP attempts to interfere with what was considered excessive Bittorrent traffic, but a concerted and state-sanctioned attempt to kill it never materialized. In large part this is because no-one wanted to set a legal precedent of censoring general purpose technology simply because of one set of legally problematic uses.

(Unsurprisingly the full story here is more complicated and includes lobbying on both sides, many attempts to damage Bittorrent traffic and a major initiative by BitTorrent Inc to adapt the protocol to make it less aggressive in the wild. The broader backdrop was the rapid build-out of internet bandwidth and the emergence of new applications which were even more bandwidth hungry than Bittorrent. In time Bittorrent traffic simply stopped being the top priority for ISPs that it once was and as a result they started focusing their energy elsewhere.)

BitTorrent Inc

BitTorrent Inc has spent its entire life living with, by turns profiting from and more often apologizing for the notoriety of many of the other actors across the Bittorrent ecosystem. It still distributes two of the most widely used Bittorrent clients — ‘Bittorrent’ and ‘uTorrent’¹; it acts as an evangelist for the best uses of Bittorrent technology; and it makes money by advertising to millions of users of its technology. It has a culture that has kept it far afield of any copyright infringement activities or encouragement, but it has continued to update and secure the technology on which a significant proportion of the Bittorrent ecosystem runs.

The Bittorrent ecosystem

The Bittorrent ecosystem is made up of the people who use the technology. Just like with Bitcoin and other blockchain projects there are a number of important roles, but each role is fulfilled by a large number of participants.

The bulk of the Bittorrent ecosystem comprises:

  • developers and distributors of client software that communicates using the open Bittorrent protocol as documented on bittorrent.org
  • operators of thousands of public and private torrent sites which provide catalogs of torrent files and community curation mechanisms to help users find files to download
  • the ‘warez scene’ — an underground community of people who collect, unprotect and release high quality versions of movies and other media onto torrent sites
  • operators of tracker nodes which help peers efficiently find each other (formerly required infrastructure that is now optional)
  • a few hundred million consumers in literally every country on earth who use torrent software to download files

Many of the roles within the Bittorrent ecosystem are both emergent in that there was no original design and self-organizing in that there is no leader and very few institutions that govern who does what or when. The roles of both BitTorrent Inc and Bram Cohen in the Bittorrent ecosystem have for a long time been quite remote. Bram as the respected but restrained progenitor of the technology, and BitTorrent Inc as the increasingly disliked ‘sellout’ which saddled everyone’s favorite software with ads and serially failed to develop the features the community most called for (mostly around anonymity and content discovery).

Why Bittorrent Mattered

The first thing to note here is Bittorrent mattered, past tense. I don’t think it matters much any more and it hasn’t really mattered for some years now. True, it still has a large user base, but it no longer has anything like the relevance it once did. The reason is that the media industry has long since moved on and Bittorrent no longer represents the existential threat it once did. (I’ll talk more about this in the fourth of this series of posts on Who wins in the face of decentralized disruption).

Of course I really mean that the Bittorrent ecosystem mattered. (BitTorrent Inc — the company — played an important role at times but rarely had definitive influence, and more often acted to avoid taking on a leadership role.) The Bittorrent ecosystem mattered fundamentally for two reasons:

First, Bittorrent for the first time made the sharing of very large files possible for anyone with an internet connection without the need for any special infrastructure. This led to explosive growth in the popularity of Bittorrent for sharing large digitized media objects. It wasn’t the first or the most recent technology here, but almost certainly operated on the largest scale. Where Bittorrent technology and BitTorrent Inc left off, the broader community filled in the gaps using off-the-shelf web technologies to deliver curated directories and search indexes, hosted public and private sharing communities, crowd-sourced ratings and reputation scores, de-facto standards for naming and encoding of files and countless other ‘features’ that made a raw technology into a thriving and usable ecosystem. The popularity was such that Bittorrent traffic was variously reported as consuming 10’s of % and sometimes over 50% of all internet traffic!

To make any files trivially shareable was a fundamental challenge to the media industry which started out treating the internet as just another sales channel into which a new ‘format’ of file could be distributed — vinyl/cassette/CD gave way to the MP3 file and VHS/DVD to the MP4. But this was not to be, as delivering a copy of a file to a single consumer on the internet meant that it was extremely difficult to prevent that file from being passed around every other consumer on the internet. Bittorrent was the last in a long line of technologies that obsoleted once and for all a file-oriented approach to building a mass media business model.

Second, the open and decentralized architecture of both the technology and the community meant that it was essentially impossible to shut down Bittorrent file-sharing. Other file-sharing systems came and went, always crippled by some centralized Achilles-heal, but Bittorrent persisted. While there have been endless legal, regulatory and technical attacks on different parts of the Bittorrent ecosystem, the ecosystem has remained impervious and still operates today much as it did over a decade ago. The fact that BitTorrent Inc also survived through to an acquisition is partly due to an abundance of caution and proactive attempts to find the good in file-sharing, but mostly to the fact that it was clear that shutting down such a company would not make much of a dent in the Bittorrent ecosystem. It would simply eliminate a moderately constructive partner at the cost of alienating a colossal number of consumers. Bittorrent users would just find other torrent software to use and the ecosystem would continue unabated.

Bittorrent fundamentally mattered because of its remarkable resilience — in spite of its incredibly disruptive influence on the media industry and the flood of illegal activity that it seems to have enabled, Bittorrent has proven to be unbelievably robust. Perhaps Bram’s crowning achievement with Bittorrent was therefore to be the proof of concept of precisely the sort of global decentralized utterly censor-proof network that Satoshi Nakamoto had in mind when he conceived of Bitcoin.

(See post two in the series on rule-breaking — what decentralization is really good for)