The MAFIAA makes P2P filesharing better

Pirate Bay 'victory' is pyrrhic

THE BIG CONTENT MAFIAA just lost another round in the war on consumer rights, and they lost badly. The Pirate Bay won again, ironically by doing exactly what the MAFIAA wanted.

The idea is simple, the MAFIAA decided to harass The Pirate Bay’s proprietors into closing down their trackers. They sued and sued until we all got bored, but eventually found, or more likely engineered, a judicial environment that was ignorant enough to believe them. Justice didn’t prevail, but the MAFIAA had a victory, pyrrhic though it might be.

The problem the MAFIAA has is that there is nothing illegal about a torrent file. A torrent file is a small text file, just a 1,000 bytes or so, that has the file names and what amounts to a location. When you open a torrent file with your bit torrent client, say Azareus/Vuse or µTorrent, all you are doing is telling it to go get X files from Y location. There is nothing illegal, copyrighted, or anything else nefarious in the .torrent file, it is just a text file. Open one up in a text editor and see for yourself.

The content MAFIAA howls and screams about them though, mainly because most politicians, law enforcement officials, and the general public are too ignorant to understand why they are being fed a load of bull. Eventually, the MAFIAA finds a patsy, and people get arrested, sued, or have equipment confiscated even though they did nothing wrong. Sadly, in extreme cases, they even get laws harmful to consumers passed.

There is however one technicality that the MAFIAA went after the good folk at The Pirate Bay over, the fact that they ran a tracker. What a tracker does is to bring people using the quite legal bit torrent clients together, it is a match maker. It hosts no more information than a torrent file, and not always even that, it could make do with simple hashes of the files if needed.

A bit torrent client talks to a tracker and says “I have X”, or “I want Y”, and the tracker matches those who want X with those who have X. From there on out, the clients talk to each other directly, and the tracker does not transfer any data, potentially copyrighted or not, legally or potentially not. It never sees any data traffic.

This is why I say the MAFIAA had to have engineered the right judicial environment for The Pirate Bay crew to be found ‘guilty’ of running a tracker. The technology they were ostensibly nailed to the wall for has no illegal information in it at all. It does not do anything illegal, and never will.

Lets not let quibbles like that weigh us down however, because if you recall, this is actually a story about the stunning victory where The Pirate Bay wins over the MAFIAA. With a court case hanging over them for a technicality, The Pirate Bay freedom fighters did what they had to do and shut down the tracker. MAFIAA win, right?

Stepping back in time again, if you remember Napster, the first MP3 sharing service, they got nailed for keeping a database of ‘illegal’ files. They were sued out of existence not all that long after the MAFIAA drove their name into the average person’s psyche, and gave Napster many times more users than it could have gotten on it’s own.

Legality aside, people liked Napster, and it worked quite well. Since the MAFIAA spurned all attempts by Napster to monetize it for them, big content lost out while claiming total victory. Napster was dead, hurrah! Don’t mind those studies that said that Napster users bought more music than before they were using it – that contradicts the official message, so it must be wrong.

Unfortunately, the MAFIAA didn’t understand the Internet. In fact, they really didn’t get how it worked, why it worked, or how it evolves. The thinking that brought a decentralized, self routing, self healing network designed to survive a nuclear war was the perfect venue for an idea meant to survive a little lawyering, nuclear or not.

Napster was brought down by a database of files. How do you make a peer to peer (P2P) system that can’t get brought down by a database? Easy, you don’t have one. So, services like Limewire and eDonkey and eMule came into being, and they were database free. The file lists were distributed among the users.

Again, not wanting to be a slave to the rights of the public, common sense, or legality, the MAFIAA continued to sue, pester, and harass every person, company or entity they could on whatever technicality they could think of. Sometimes they lost, sometimes they won, and often, the people who were sued simply couldn’t afford to fight, so they went away.

Whenever the P2P networks were shut down, there was a legal reason for it to be shuttered. Like with Napster, a new service arose that worked around the technicality, and usually was better than the one it replaced. P2P has grown from a single database owned by Napster, to distributed, encrypted, and obfuscated network.

Cut off it’s head, and a new breed emerges that doesn’t need a head. Stake it’s heart, and within hours, a new version comes out that has no head or heart, but is stronger and faster. The people want the services that P2P networks provide, and they are much smarter, faster, and code better than the MAFIAA lawyers. Each new iteration comes quicker than the last, and takes longer and longer to wipe out.

The end result is a thing of simple evolutionary beauty. The current P2P programs have no head, no heart, and the lists of files to download are completely legal, contain no copyrighted data, and more to the point, can not contain copyrighted data. They just work mostly on their own, are almost completely bulletproof, and with sufficient users, much faster than any direct download can be. Go grab a torrent of Ubuntu 9.10 to find out how fast your net connection really is.

That didn’t stop the MAFIAA though. They found a theoretical loophole, and someone who was willing to throw logic aside to carry out their wishes. The tracker brought the good ship Pirate Bay to its knees, so they threw it overboard.

Luckily, there was already a technology called Distributed Hash Table (DHT), along with another one called Peer Exchange (PEX), ready and waiting. They picked up the mantle for the now departed trackers. For a good explanation of the technologies, read this TorrentFreak article.

The short story is that DHT and PEX only keep a hash of the completely legal torrent file, and allows people to not only exchange them between each other, but also exchange requests in a P2P fashion. Hashes also tend to be ‘one way’, so you can’t really tell what people are exchanging unless you know what the original file and the hash for it is.

There is no head, there is not heart, there are not even any toes to step on now, and the system is more robust, faster, and more resilient than it was the day before the MAFIAA ‘won’ this last round. Total time? A few weeks. Time until the MAFIAA ‘wins’ again? Likely years, if ever.

Ironically, since everything is distributed now, taking out The Pirate Bay’s list of torrent files will do them no good. The bad guys succeeded in removing the last vestige of control that The Pirate Bay had over the system, and now it is just a repository of text files. Should the MAFIAA make the web site go away somehow, it will do them no good in their inexorable campaign to stop ‘piracy’.

So far, it has been so effective that the P2P user base has grown by several orders of magnitude since it was first kicked off, and has gone from an esoteric geek ‘in thing’ to something so easy that a child can, and does, do it. In fact, most children do actually do it. Own goal there, MAFIAA.

The MAFIAA are now faced with two next steps. They can sue everyone they think is ‘pirating’, something they are actually trying to do even though those people are also their best customers, or change the laws. If they change the laws to make a given technology illegal, it will take years to do, years more for appeals, and get several completely legal companies that use P2P technologies, like professional sports leagues, quite peeved.

As soon as they try and sue a technology out of existence, the MAFIAA will tip their hand, and work will begin on a new protocol that does not do any of the ‘bad’ things. It will be completed long before its older sibling gets squashed, and the cycle will continue. The MAFIAA might ‘win’ again, but either way, the new network will be stronger, faster, smarter, and easier to use. Reengineering something from the ground up is a great way to fix architectural flaws.

The Pirate Bay doesn’t have a tracker any more. DHT and PEX just got a huge boost, and went from a decent idea to a very widely used and robust network with millions of users in a matter of weeks. Since it is P2P, its robustness follows Metcalf’s law, something the MAFIAA still doesn’t understand.

P2P is now better, faster, and more dangerous to the myopic luddites at Big Content, and they have only themselves to blame. There is now no one there to ‘kill’ in the next round.

In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”S|A

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 The MAFIAA makes P2P filesharing better

Charlie Demerjian

Roving engine of chaos and snide remarks at SemiAccurate
Charlie Demerjian is the founder of Stone Arch Networking Services and SemiAccurate.com. SemiAccurate.com is a technology news site; addressing hardware design, software selection, customization, securing and maintenance, with over one million views per month. He is a technologist and analyst specializing in semiconductors, system and network architecture. As head writer of SemiAccurate.com, he regularly advises writers, analysts, and industry executives on technical matters and long lead industry trends. Charlie is also a council member with Gerson Lehman Group.