"You can click, but you can't hide" says the Motion Picture Association of America in the Big Brother-style warning message they posted on LokiTorrent.com after gaining control over it in a lawsuit settlement two weeks ago. "This website has been permanently shut down by court order because it facilitates the illegal downloading of copyrighted motion pictures."
Unlike the music industry, which stood by doe-eyed and slack-jawed while a massive consumer backlash/free-for-all through Peer-to-Peer file-sharing systems led by Napster forced a reinvention of their business fundamentals, the television and movie industries are not sitting idly by, waiting for a similar impact from BitTorrent. They are, quite literally, kicking ass and taking names.
LokiTorrent.com used to be a popular BitTorrent hub where file-traders seeking software, music, movies, television shows and other content could find, share and exchange "torrent" links. According to a recent for-sale ad posted to Sedo.com (a website and domain name marketplace), the site had 680,000 registered active members. The full list, including inactive members, probably has around 2 million names on it.
As part of his settlement with the MPAA, LokiTorrent.com owner Edward Webber agreed to provide the MPAA with copies of all logs and server data related to his "illegal BitTorrent activities, which will provide a roadmap to others who have used LokiTorrent to engage in illegal activities," the MPAA said in a statement.
If you were a registered user, expect some unfriendly, moralistic e-mail from the MPAA sometime soon. Whether it will be anything more than that remains to be seen. While the MPAA has been militant in shutting down BitTorrent server operators - it cooperated with Interpol and Finnish police on a raid of a popular Finnish site - it has yet to target individual users.
So what's the big deal with BitTorrent?
BitTorrent was created by late-20s computer programmer Bram Cohen when he thought he could build a better file-swapping system. He was right about that, but the effects of what he's built are only starting to become known.
Unlike Napster, which allowed users to share entire files, BitTorrent breaks a file into fragments that get distributed individually, not necessarily in order, and then reassembled on a downloader's computer. This method allows a machine to take advantage of the best connections to the missing pieces while providing an upload connection to the fragments it already has.
This system has proven particularly proficient in trading large files such as high-quality videos (i.e., copied DVDs or recorded television shows) and software source code (i.e. Linux distributions). In traditional downloading, high consumer demand leads to bandwidth bottlenecks on host servers. With BitTorrent, high demand can actually speed through-put, as more bandwidth and fragments of the completed file become available.
My friend Susan doesn't care what the macroscopic global implications of this new technology may be. Her only thought is of how absolutely cool it is that she can get episodes of Desperate Housewives and Arrested Development online whenever she misses them. And she laughed when I invited her to see the movie Sideways with me a few weeks ago. She'd already seen it via a torrent.
Every day, within hours of their broadcast, TV shows are made available as torrents. Sometimes this occurs after their East Coast broadcast and before they air on the West Coast. There are HD and RD versions, and they're easy to find. So easy, in fact, that audiences in the UK and Australia, who normally receive North American shows months after they're broadcast here, are in the habit of getting them online.
Many shows posted as torrents are recorded without commercials, and when the ads are left in, they wind up showing in front of the wrong demographics. Why would someone advertising a national Canadian brand on CTV care about having the commercial seen in Sydney, Australia?
When the show is finally aired in Sydney, viewership will be down because many Aussies will already have seen it. With smaller audiences, the networks have lower ratings and are forced to lower their advertising rates, which leaves them less money to invest in programming, which reduces the quality of the content, which in turn further reduces demand, thus shrinking audience size.
The MPAA is scared to death of BitTorrent, and rightfully so. They don't want to let anyone but their own principals make decisions about restructuring their business, so they are bringing all guns to bear. It has even lobbied the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to mandate that all new consumer electronics equipment capable of receiving over-the-air digital signals - from digital televisions to computers equipped with TV tuner cards - include technology that recognizes a broadcast flag that is essentially a DRM (digital rights management) system for television signals. Expect to hear lots of howling about this from south of the border, as the tentative start date for this is July 1.
The MPAA's scared many people with the message they posted to LokiTorrent.com: "Illegally downloading movies from sites such as these without proper authorization violates the law, is theft, and is not anonymous. Stealing movies leaves a trail. The only way not to get caught is to stop."
BitTorrent was never designed to provide anonymity to its users. It WILL leave a trail. If you would appreciate being able to walk with a lighter footprint, check out The Free Network Project.