The operator of the torrent site KickassTorrents has been arrested in Poland on an extradition request from Hollywood, and the domains seized. This action, while deplorable, shows that the copyright industry is still some fifty years behind reality in its thinking: there are no central chokepoints you can control on the Internet, and the net reacts to any censorship like this with antifragility – hardening and decentralizing the damaged part.
The old monopolized copyright industry is thinking in terms of central chokepoints, just like the Catholic Church was 500 years ago when trying to crush the printing press and its users. But just like the printing press, the Internet is decentralized, so it’s easy to circumvent chokepoints – and this has been predictable for a long time.
In 2006, when a lot of the shared culture was still music in the form of mp3 files, activists theorized that it would only be ten years before a typical mobile phone would be able to carry an amount of data that, for all intents and purposes, was all music in existence at the time. Ten years later, we can observe that this has come true (again, for all practical intents and purposes). It can also be observed that it’s trivial to construct an anonymous phone-app-based mesh file sharing network that operates over some lightweight channel like Bluetooth – you’d have sharing swarms forming spontaneously in every subway car, in every café, in every crowd, with each individual sharer completely unidentifiable. Therefore, anybody carrying a mobile phone has access to all the world’s culture, even if they don’t know when and where they acquired it. How would you possibly go about stopping a decentralized, invisible phenomenon like that if you were trying to protect a crumbling centralized monopoly?
The only reason such mesh networks aren’t already in widespread use is that it’s marginally – marginally – more convenient to use a torrent site than to tell an app what you’re looking for and what you’re sharing while you’re carrying around your phone all day anyway. But just as the shutdown of Napster spurred a flurry of development of more decentralized sharing, the developer community today would respond similarly if there was ever an existential threat to torrenting. If built today, sharing of knowledge and culture would happen untraceably, anonymously, uncensorably, and decentralized – using an additional fifteen years of liberty and free speech technologies that didn’t exist when torrenting was developed in 2001, fifteen years ago. This was before Facebook, Twitter, and the iPhone!
Pretending that it’s useful to shut down a torrent site in order to prevent people from sharing, even a large site like KickassTorrents, is slightly more futile than King Knut ordering the sea tide to not come in anymore. The world just doesn’t stop rotating because an obsolete monopolized industry wants it to.
This does not take into account the fact that sharing culture and knowledge for nonprofit, altruistic purposes between individuals is currently illegal. This column does not go into the question of ethics, merely cause and effect. Besides, the law is generally a poor metric of ethics. Most of history’s worst mass crimes have been legal at the time.
This also does not take into account the fact that any torrent engine is, or can be, used to distribute protected speech as well as independent works. Most of the indie music upstarts distribute their works through various torrent engines such as The Pirate Bay. I’ve also personally used it to distribute political material. Such speech, which has a very high level of protection, is collateral damage to an attempt to protect somebody’s bottom line here.
Privacy and free speech remain your own responsibility.