BitTorrent is fifteen years old. What would a file sharing technology developed today look like?
BitTorrent was developed in 2001: today’s file-sharing technology predates the launch of Facebook, Twitter, and the iPhone. In those fifteen years, surveillance and repression technologies have advanced massively. If we designed file sharing today to keep up with these developments, sharing technology would be an uncensorable, untrackable, and unidentifiable peer-to-peer mesh network between mobile devices.
Ten years ago, activists argued that file sharing was unstoppable and would adapt to any threat using mobile transmissions. However, this innovation hasn’t taken place, maybe out of a lack of urgency. Let’s examine how such a technology could work.
A little history
When music sharing became file sharing with the advent of the first home computers, files were physically carried on cassette tapes and floppy disks to the recipient. This was the early 1980s, and this form of sharing has been nicknamed the AdidasLAN in retrospect, joking about the fact that files were carried by Adidas sneakers.
The first major development came with BBSes of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when an error-correcting and signal-quality-sensitive file transfer protocol appeared intended to transfer files over phone lines. It was known as ZModem, and you could call it an early poor man’s version of TCP (as in the TCP/IP suite of Internet protocols; this was not yet the Internet). This protocol was used to transfer a lot of correspondence and discussions (and other files) on an amateur network known as FidoNet that predated the mainstream Internet rollout.
Fast forwarding to 1999, and Napster appeared, with one centralized server and centralized client databases (where everybody could see everybody’s full collection). It was shut down by the copyright industry in a move that was the first in a long string of mistakes.
A few months later, a competitor named DirectConnect appeared, which quickly got many protocol-compatible clones. Thus, the servers had decentralized to many different servers – but the clients still served their full database, which presented a legal weakness, and a file was transferred between one source and one destination at a time, which presented an efficiency weakness.
In response to this in turn, BitTorrent was developed and released in the summer of 2001. It decentralized the client databases and the transmission, so nobody could see the full shared catalog of another peer. And… well, the innovation basically ends at that point.
Let’s take that again: when BitTorrent was developed, not only did Facebook and Twitter not exist, but the world didn’t have modern mobile phones or the very concept of apps on mobile phones.
If you want an idea of just how old BitTorrent is, consider the fact that it was released in the same summer as Windows XP (July 2 and August 26, respectively).
There has been basically no innovation at all in the file sharing field after BitTorrent, and that’s a problem on many fronts. The development that has happened has mostly been in the convenience field – like the ability to subscribe to certain TV shows using RSS.
The one major security add-on is VPNs, and although they are tremendously useful in anonymizing and the best we’ve got today, they are but one security layer on top of an old technology.
Convenience or security?
There’s always a case to be made for user convenience if you want adoption of software. Popcorn Time, for example, can be argued to be the most recent big innovation in file sharing – but it adds convenience only, and not one piece of security. If we’re updating the security to account for the latest fifteen years, convenience may be nice, but it’s not our main focus.
The founders, operators, and spokespeople for The Pirate Bay have long argued that it’s a weakness of the ecosystem that they’re a centralized chokepoint. It’s easy to see they’re right in this. In the latest installment, Peter Sunde argues that IPFS or ZeroNet would provide significant innovation – but much of this just builds another interceptable layer on top of legacy BitTorrent instead of doing what BitTorrent did: reinventing ground-up to meet a clear and present threat.
It’s important to understand that developing a technology to protect dissidents in repressive regimes, and a technology to enable the nonprofit sharing of culture and knowledge, are one and the same thing — even up to where repressive regimes and the copyright industry use the same surveillance/repression vendors.
Therefore, in this thought experiment, we’re focusing on developing a technology to enable the free and safe information sharing for dissidents in repressive regimes; a tool to safeguard human rights. As a bonus, we’re also getting a general information-wants-to-be-free technology. (This is a common factor of the copyright industry, that they fight against basic human rights in order to enforce their monopoly. For example, the copyright industry recently complained that TOR and bitcoin – two tools used to help dissidents in repressive regimes safeguard human rights – indeed “get in the way” of copyright monopoly enforcement.)
Once you’re focusing on making information anonymous and untraceable, you’re doing the bulk of your transmission off the traceable Internet. You’re using the fact that there are many clusters forming daily (if not hourly) of random sets of mobile devices (Androids and iPhones) that happen to come into physical proximity of each other – at subway stations, in buses, in parks. You use the fact that these can hold massive data amounts today, and that they can contact each other and transfer tons of data anonymously and untraceably in such spontaneous clusters, using low-energy long-range Bluetooth 4 as the most obvious transmission candidate. Thus, we have huge set of constantly shifting mesh networks (a supermesh) where nodes come and go, and carry data from one mesh to the next.
When using a network like this, you would choose to publish a document or subscribe to a certain flow (maybe a series of documents from a dissident), and a peer somewhere – at a safe distance from you, many hops away – could choose to act as a gateway to the Internet, thereby making the endpoints truly anonymous and untraceable, not to mention uncensorable.
As a funny observation, such a transmission technology would build more on the original AdidasLAN than it builds on BitTorrent, as the successful transmission of data depends on nodes being in physical motion through the day.
Of course, as mentioned, such a technology could also be used to tell the mesh network to subscribe to episodes of a certain TV show, where those episodes would practically appear everywhere at once in a city with just a few gateway feeds into the supermesh in that particular city. That’s a byproduct of developing human rights software, as observed earlier.
Privacy remains your own responsibility.