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Is it too late for BitTorrent to shake its seedy image?

the internet should be people powered

BitTorrent's billboard campaign is one step in revamping the company's "pirate" reputation

Is it possible to change the definition of a word everyone already uses?

Finding an answer to this question has become the single most important mission for BitTorrent Inc., a company that has begun to fight back against the inconvenient fact that its very name is synonymous with the Internet’s most popular crime: illegal file sharing. Under the guidance of Matt Mason, author of The Pirate’s Dilemma and BitTorrent’s executive director of marketing, the company has a plan for how to edit the dictionary of the Internet lexicon.

The highest profile example of BitTorrent’s “rehabilitation,” as Mason calls it, came earlier this month with an enigmatic billboard campaign in New York City, Los Angeles, and the company’s hometown, San Francisco. Stark white with bold, black lettering, the first set of billboards imposed onlookers with contentious messages that included “Your data should belong to the NSA,” “Artists need to play by the rules,” and “The Internet should be regulated.” There was no indication of who commissioned their creation. Until October 8, that is, when the messages all flipped: “The Internet should be regulated people-powered”; “You data should belong to the NSA you.” And at the bottom of each: “BitTorrent.”

“We could shut down BitTorrent accounting tomorrow, and Internet piracy would still exist.”

“To use billboards to really introduce ourselves just seemed like a great way to completely put our brand and the technology in a completely different context,” says Mason. “Just in case that wasn’t enough, we wanted to dispel everybody’s preconceived idea of what BitTorrent was. So we started with these messages – these unbranded messages – that represented all the things that we’re not, all the things that we’re against.”

Another thing BitTorrent is adamantly against, says Mason: Online piracy. This may come as some surprise considering that BitTorrent, the protocol, is the Internet’s most widely used technology for downloading copyrighted content illegally. “BitTorrent” or just “torrenting” means piracy – or just getting movies and music for free – to millions of people. It is this misconception, as the company believes it to be, that stands in the company BitTorrent’s way.

Created in 2001 by Python developer Bram Cohen, the BitTorrent protocol is a peer-to-peer technology that allows people to easily share and download large files without the need for central servers. Instead of downloading entire files from one place, users download bits and pieces from multiple users – a method that reduces download times to a fraction of what it would be using the server method.

According to Mason, Cohen designed BitTorrent because he believed that HTTP – the protocol used to serve websites to your browser – would be inadequate as a delivery mechanism for a future Internet, where large file transfers would be the norm. Instead, he envisioned a decentralized ‘Net that directly connected users to each other and to each other’s files.

“He wasn’t thinking about music. He wasn’t thinking about movies,” says Mason. “He was thinking about data, and he was thinking about the general shape of the Internet.”

your data should belong to you

BitTorrent Inc. hopes its billboard campaign can help revamp the company’s image

Trouble is, Cohen made BitTorrent completely open-source, meaning anyone can use it and modify it without BitTorrent, the company, having any say in the matter – or collecting any revenue from its use. The result has been bittersweet for the company, says Mason. On one hand, the BitTorrent technology is popular – it currently accounts for between 20 and 40 percent of all Internet traffic every day, according to BitTorrent’s count. Companies like Facebook, Twitter, Etsy, Wikipedia, and EVE Online use the BitTorrent protocol to rollout large updates to users. Scientific entities like the Human Genome Project and CERN scientists working on the Large Hadron Collider use BitTorrent for crunching massive data sets. Then you have The Pirate Bay.

“This is nothing that we can control or do anything about,” says Mason. “We could shut down BitTorrent accounting tomorrow, and Internet piracy would still exist.”

So stopping piracy sites and services isn’t an option. Instead, BitTorrent has begun to roll out a series of products that it hopes will shift the public’s conception of what BitTorrent is from something seedy to something legitimate – and extremely useful.

“If you talk to engineers at Facebook and Twitter about using BitTorrent – you know, these are the smartest guys in the world who are building some of the best Internet platforms in the world,” says Mason. “It’s really up to everybody else to catch up with that idea.”

“We’re not a piracy website. We’ve never, ever done anything illegal. And we never will.”

In addition to the BitTorrent and μTorrent clients – through which users can find, share and download torrent files – BitTorrent last year launched BitTorrent Bundles, which allow artists, musicians, authors, and filmmakers the ability to distribute entire packages of content – large files – directly to fans. Just this week, for example, Moby released his new album, Innocents, as a Bundle that included three bonus tracks, two short films, and the entire stem files for the album, which allows fans to completely remix the tracks however they choose. 

Another recent release is BitTorrent Sync, a kind of peer-to-peer version of Dropbox for Android and iOS devices that lets users transfer files of any size without them first passing through a server (thus eliminating the risk that law enforcement might some day come and subpoena your content). The company also has a Snapchat competitor, BitTorrent Chat, which has the same peer-to-peer functionality and perks. Mason says to expect a slew of “really exciting new stuff” in 2014 – all of which the company hopes will help scrub its image.

In addition to its consumer-facing products, BitTorrent has also begun to work with Hollywood studios to help them figure out a way to distribute high quality 4K video files, which are hundreds of gigabytes in size. BitTorrent has also collaborated with the Consumer Electronics Association in an effort to bake BitTorrent technology into televisions and set-top boxes. Efforts like these appear to be helping to legitimize the BitTorrent brand in the eyes of the establishment.

“The RIAA and the MPAA – the two most vocal anti-piracy group in the world – are publicly endorsing us, the work that we do,” says Mason. “Things are really starting to change because when people see our true intentions of the company, and what the people here at BitTorrent really believe in, you know, it’s hard to argue with that.”

Update: RIAA Vice President of Communications Cara Duckworth reached out to me after publication to clarify that the RIAA has “never publicly endorsed BitTorrent nor are we doing so now.” Duckworth added that it is an RIAA “rule” to never “endorse one particular technology over another.” 

When I asked whether he feared a backlash from BitTorrent’s 170 million users – many of whom presumably view piracy as a perfectly good way to get content – Mason says they are used to criticism, but that it’s nothing to be concerned about.

matt mason

BitTorrent’s Matt Mason

“Most of our users are 16- to 24-year-old guys. And there’s no bigger group of complainers on planet Earth than these guys, right?,” says Mason. “… We get a lot of complaints all the time.” But the 6 billion ads the company serves through its products each month, and the increasing amount of paid-for content BitTorrent offers, seem to have little effect on user satisfaction. “People feel good when they see artists using BitTorrent to get content in front of people,” he says.

Moving forward, Mason and the rest of the BitTorrent team will continue to release products “as quickly as we can” in an effort to redefine what BitTorrent means to the arts industries and fans. It will continue its marketing efforts on “every imaginable medium over the next 12 months.” And, Mason hopes, it will “prove what BitTorrent is.”

“Our job is to make BitTorrent more understandable, more accessible to consumers, and to keep educating people,” says Mason. “But we’ve got nothing to be ashamed of. We’re not a piracy website. We’ve never, ever done anything illegal. And we never will.”

Whether or not that will be enough to erase the company’s swashbuckling image remains a big “if.”

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