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Culture

P2P hide-and-seek

BitTorrent technology, anointed by the tech-savvy as an answer to file swapping's network traffic jams, runs into legal and practical problems as it breaks into the mainstream.

A new technology, anointed by many tech-savvy computer users as an answer to file swapping's network traffic jams, is running into legal and practical problems as it breaks into the mainstream.
Read more about file swapping

Visitors to several of the most popular sites serving as hubs for BitTorrent file downloads last week found them gone, with explanatory messages variously citing legal threats from copyright holders, denial-of-service attacks and simple overloaded bandwidth.

The phenomenon may prove a stumbling block to a technology that many in the online world have quickly adopted as the super-efficient answer to the kinds of slowdowns and download queues that are common with more popular services such as Kazaa or Morpheus. But the issues come as no surprise to the technology's creator, independent San Francisco programmer Bram Cohen, who says his work is badly designed for anyone who wants to trade copyrighted works without being identified.

"Distributing stuff that is clearly illegal with BitTorrent is a really dumb idea," said Cohen, who advocates using the software to distribute large uncopyrighted files such as open-source programs. "BitTorrent doesn't have any anonymity features. There are things about it that make it very incompatible with anonymity."

The recent flurry of sites popping up and down in the BitTorrent-based file-trading scene spotlights a moment of technological and cultural transition in the online world. Pressure from copyright holders is pushing traditional file-swappers to look for networks with more privacy to avoid lawsuits. At the same time developers are creating ways around the inefficiencies of the older networks.

The two goals can work at odds, as increases in privacy often come at some cost in ease of use or efficiency.

Bits and pieces
BitTorrent has caught on in recent months with people looking to trade large files online, whether legal or unauthorized. More efficient than older file-swapping programs such as Kazaa or Morpheus, it has become a particular favorite for people seeking video files such as films or TV shows.

The technology essentially works by cutting each large file into many tiny pieces. Computer users downloading a film, for example, receive the large file piece by piece, and in turn become separate distribution hubs for each individual piece as they receive it.

BitTorrent downloads

Unlike Kazaa or Napster, the software does not have a search function, which makes it more difficult to find any specific file. Instead, links into the BitTorrent system are posted on Web pages. Those links point to a "tracker," a piece of software that keeps tabs on various hosts for a given file and its components, and that directs surfers to somebody else's computer for copying.

That distribution system, while not as simple to use as Kazaa, has made for speedy downloads. It's also provided copyright authorities with a simple way to shut down popular nodes on the BitTorrent networks, however.

One of the most popular sites offering links to a huge array of movies, music and software, called Torrentse.cx, disappeared in the middle of last week. Visitors were temporarily greeted with a note saying that the site's operators had "received a cease and desist letter during the day of Wednesday, July 16, 2003 for copyright infringement." The site would not be revived, the note said.

A spokesperson for the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) said that organization had not yet issued any cease-and-desist letters for BitTorrent sites. An attorney for the Motion Picture Association, which has also issued large numbers of warnings to Web sites and file traders, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Another hugely popular site, Austria-based Bytemonsoon.com, closed earlier last week, citing denial-of-service attacks and mounting bandwidth charges.

"Sorry to everyone for this, but I have no other choice," said a message on a public BitTorrent-themed discussion board attributed to the site's owner. "I wish I could keep it up, it's been really great, even though it's been a constant struggle."

All of this takes place as the legal stakes are growing higher daily for Net file swappers.

Recently, the RIAA pledged to sue individuals who infringe copyrights, and it won a court order, using a controversial, fast-track subpoena procedure, forcing Verizon Communications to divulge the identity of a Kazaa user. The RIAA has already filed suit against four university students, and some schools have disciplined students for inappropriate file swapping.

Following the Verizon decision, the RIAA began sending out hundreds of subpoenas to Internet service providers and colleges for information about individual computer users. The information gathered will be used to file what could be thousands of lawsuit, association officials have said.

According to the circuit court serving as a clearinghouse for the RIAA subpoenas, close to 900 subpoenas had been filed as of late last week. Close to 300 more per week are expected for months to come.