[Marxism] Revenge of the MPAA and A New Hope

José G. Pérez jg_perez at bellsouth.net
Mon May 30 20:39:14 MDT 2005


People trying to logon to elitetorrents.org beginning Wednesday morning (May
25) instead got a rude notice:

THIS SITE HAS BEEN PERMANENTLY SHUT DOWN BY THE FEDERAL BUREAU OF
INVESTIGATION AND U.S. IMMIGRATION AND CUSTOMS ENFORCEMENT

In essence it was just a DNS hack, i.e., sending people who typed that
address to a different place, except that rather than using any real skill
or élan in pulling it off, the cops just relied on issuing a diktat.

Elitetorrents.org is one of the web sites which, by hosting ".torrent"
files, and the associated "trackers," makes it possible for the bit torrent
networks to function (I say networks, plural, because the way this protocol
works, each "swarm" of downloaders of a particular file aren't connected or
visible to others downloading a different file in any way). 

The way this protocol works is that you download a small file that points to
the tracker and also has information about the file you want to download
(how it is divided and a "hash" for each part that allows you to check
whether the part you've received got corrupted in transit). The central
tracker tells your bit torrent program who has all or part of the file you
want to get, and the programs on the end-user computer take it from there.

A press release issued a few hours later explained that 10 search warrants
were being executed for top members of what the cops call the elite torrent
network. That press release also left little doubt as to who was pulling the
strings: it profusely thanked the MPAA --the major studios cartel-- for
their assistance.

That, frankly, was an *odd* stance for the FBI, supposed computer crime
fighters, to take. For it was revealed by Wired magazine that the MPAA gave
the FBI the server logs for www.elitetorrent.org. 

Now, the last time I heard, breaking into someone else's computers and
stealing their private information was a heavy-duty felony in the United
States, and conspiring to do so probably makes you liable to the
(supposedly) anti-mafia RICO Act (RICO=Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt
Organizations). That's the kind of thing that the FBI is supposedly
constantly on the lookout for, lest some terrorist get a hold of Faux News's
robots.txt file and mess up google searches for the entire human race.

*  *  *

Be that as it may, someone needs to tell the movie execs to get a life.
Generally box office records have been falling by the hour in this
millennium, so if the studios can't make a buck, they have no one to blame
but themselves. 

Yet not since the days when Jack Valenti was denouncing VHS taping as the
Jack the Ripper of the movie industry in Congressional hearings has the
copyright hysteria from these troglodytes reached such a fever pitch.

As for what practical effect the MPAA's offensive might have, the evidence
is already trickling in. 

Thursday a week and a half ago, there were tens of thousands of people out
there downloading Episode III, and that was BEFORE an MPAA press release
whose main effect was to alert everyone in the world who saw a write-up that
Revenge of the Sith was available on the Internet, and moreover, it was a
fair quality DVD of a work print, not one of those God-awful "screeners." 

They were even kind enough to single out the Bit Torrent protocol, sparing
people from possibly frustrating searches on the Fast Track (Kazaa,
Grokster, etc.), Gnutella (Limewire, Bearshare, etc.) and eDonkey (eMule,
etc.) networks, and helping to introduce them to the wonders of bit torrent.

I say wonder of but torrent because this was as good a test as could have
been wanted of the efficacy and especially scalability of bit torrent
technology. Unlike many other peer-to-peer file sharing protocols, under bit
torrent you begin uploading to others bits of the file you are downloading
as soon as you start receiving those bits. When you consider that the first
Star Wars ROTS torrents were posted late Wed. evening, to achieve that scale
of distribution, with literally many hundreds of "seeds" (people who had
already completed their downloads) by a few hours later was truly
impressive.

What is especially notable is that what had been predicted, which is that
the bigger the swarm, the faster the downloads, proved to be true. This was
the fastest download of a single file I have ever seen, under any protocol,
including http and ftp, on a computer at home. It completely maxed out my
3mbps Internet connection. And that wasn't because of two or three
ultra-fast seeds that were uploading to me, but because there were dozens,
both seeds and other downloaders, sending parts to me. It's the sort of
thing that makes you want to jump out of your chair and shout "I have seen
the future, and it WORKS!"

*  *  *

But what's happened has also underscored the vulnerability of the original
bit torrent protocol, which relies on web sites that operate "trackers" to
put file sharers in touch with each other.

Happy to say, the folks that develop the free software bit torrent client
Azureus had already released a client which incorporates technology for
"trackerless" torrents, i.e., the tracker function is distributed among the
clients themselves. 

And now Bram Cohen, creator of the bit torrent protocol, has also
incorporated it into a beta (test version) of his client (end user program).
I'm not sure whether the Azureus scheme and Cohen's are compatible, nor
which is better, but we'll soon find out.

Whether this first version of the distributed tracking technology will work
as excellently well as the tracker-organized swarms I don't know; but if it
even half-works, that pretty much makes the MPAA strategy of stopping file
sharing by victimizing operators of tracker sites a labor of Sisyphus. And
by focusing the attention of freedom-loving hackers on the challenge, the
movie monopolists have pretty much guaranteed that even if this first
version of trackerless torrents sucks, eventually ... and in this cased that
means in a few months ... "trackerless" bit torrent swarms will work.

That's what happened with gnutella, coded by über hacker and Winamp creator
Justin Frankel. Gnutella did not scale, but the Fast Track protcol, which
seems to be largely based on it, does (and the better current Gnutella
clients use ideas drawn from Fast Track 

In addition, by coincidence, on the very same day as the MPAA busted
elitetorrents.org, Bit Torrent made public its torrent search engine. A
quick search for Star Wars brought up more than 100 results, including quite
a few for Revenge of the Sith torrents, most of which appeared to be hosted
outside the U.S. and therefore beyond the immediate reach of the MPAA and
its stooges at the FBI (Elite Torrents was hosted outside the U.S., but
apparently the principals weren't outside the U.S. There's a lesson there.)

Of course, the MPAA/FBI offensive shows that file sharing is increasing
unsafe in the U.S. As if to underscore the point, the RIAA, the MPAA's
just-as-evil recording industry twin, just filed 91 MORE lawsuits against
college students who like music and whose universities are part of the
ultra-fast Internet2 network.

Ironically, if there is someone other than its developer to thank for the
scalability and efficiency of bit torrent, probably the RIAA would be it. By
constantly attacking successive generations of file sharing protocols and
programs, it has put them on a forced march of Darwinian evolution in two
ways.

First, it has widely publicized the existence of these file trading networks
and protocols far beyond the layer of hackers and technophiles, to where
they have been taken up by tens of millions of people, forcing developers to
create networks that really scale and are really reliable. (This is where
bit torrent protocol really shines.)

Second, by attacking central points of coordination and control, or nodes
that stand out by the volume of their offerings, it has forced a rapid
turnover in protocols and clients, from one to another as file traders seek
to stay below the RIAA (and now MPAA) radar.

Thus Azureus, a free software bit torrent protocol program, for example, now
allows the use of various plugins. One, called safepeer, blocks known
corporate (especially copyright cartel) or cop/government internet protocol
addresses from accessing you. Millions of them. Another plug-in implements
distributed tracker functionality, so that even if a central tracker is
taken down, a swarm can continue, and new people can join it.

A neat feature of the program, which enhances both efficiency and security,
is a special seeding mode (seeding is when you have a complete download but
keep it available online to share) that makes it appear to others on the
network as if you have only a few pieces of the complete files. But the
program figures out just which pieces most people your computers is in touch
with don't have, which, over time, will tend to even out the availability of
parts.

This was a clever hack aimed at the following scenario: A low-speed upload
rate original seeder has among those it is first in contact with a very
high-speed file sharer. The first parts that the high-speed file sharer
receives will be transferred almost immediately to other folks, thus
increasing their availability, and pretty soon, if it is a really LARGE
file, with dozens or hundreds of parts, you get a situation with dozens or
hundreds of clients who all have the same parts of the file. But if the
"seeds" tell others that they only have "rare" parts, those computers will
only get requests for those rare parts, counteracting the availability
bottleneck in the swarm.

Obviously, this is a greay feature in terms of network efficiency. BUT --
what is likely to be important going forward -- it helps to hide who was the
person who originally shared the file. To other computers in the swarm, you
just seem to be one more person downloading who happened to get early on
relatively rare pieces.

Another important Azureus feature that the program incorporates (in this
case the importance is more potential than immediate) is the ability to
limit your file sharing to just the I2P or TOR networks, rather than the
Internet as a whole. 

Both of these networks seek to anonymize your web activities by encrypting
outgoing traffic and sending it through several intermediaries. While both
of these networks are in their infancy, they make it much harder to know who
was the source of a particular file transfer, and if the RIAA or MPAA train
their guns on heavy end users of the bit torrent protocol, a very rapid
shift to those anonymizing mechanisms can be expected. 

That shift hasn't happened --yet-- because the price you pay is decreased
efficiency. But bandwidth is increasing all the time, and even if you
sacrifice half of your available upload speed by becoming part of these
networks, should the heat on end users really get intense, I suspect the
most knowledgeable ones will find it a worthwhile tradeoff.

That's because upload bandwidth is not really that big an issue on the bit
torrent protocol. Not with really large swarms, like for just-released
movies with a high geek appeal. 

The return of the Sith file shows this. It is a user-friendly "ISO" (a
ready-to-burn DVD image) rather than a more compressed Divx version, because
many people simply don't know how to handle divx files or prefer watching
movies on a regular TV and can't be bothered, or don't have the tools or
know-how, to go from divx to a DVD. What used to be decisive --that the DVD
image is twice as large, or more, than the Divx file would have been-- is no
longer the decisive consideration.

Perhaps the greatest *irony* in all this is that by attacking sites that
host .torrent files and trackers, the movie monopoly mafia is forcing Bit
Torrent to go to distributed tracking, with no central point of attack. Thus
the MPAA is losing a golden, probably once-in-a-generation, opportunity to
establish paid file sharing as an additional source of revenue. 

That's because a central point of control is ALSO a central point of revenue
collection. Already several .torrent tracker sites require you to register
and have your IP logged in to their web site to have their trackers let you
into a swarm. All you need is to put a toll booth for authorization, not
just simply a login.

And the additional costs for whoever were to implement such an idea would be
microscopic, essentially, just enough bandwidth to seed the file and allow
people to download the "*.torrent" file, which are usually less than 100K.
You could easily get $5 or more for the download of some first run movie
like Star Wars, for a distribution cost of a few cents per downloader.

This is *exactly* the same stupidity that the music monopoly mafia, the
RIAA, did in shutting down Napster. If they had simply legalized it at, say,
$50/year/subscriber, the recording industry could easily have an income
stream of $2-$3 billion just in the United States from a service that would
cost, at most, a few million dollars to run. (Remember, unlike the
dollar-a-pop music downloading sites, in a peer-to-peer network the users
absorb the distribution costs). And they would have undermined the emergence
and further refinement of other file sharing protocols that make centralized
control impossible. They could even have, at least for a time, limited file
sharing to the FM-radio-like, "casual listening" quality of MP3 files
encoded at 128kbps, experimented with premium "per download" charges for new
releases or better encoding, etc.

As things stand, the stupidity of the music monopoly mafia has led to a
situation where the number of tracks distributed online through file
sharing, according to the music monopoly mafia's own figures, is several
times that distributed through "legal" channels, and Hollywood seems intent
on following in the RIAA's footsteps.

*  *  *

There is, of course, much more that could be said about this -- everything
from how the actions of these monopolies show that capitalism has outlived
its usefulness to how the free software movement might prefigure aspects of
how a socialist society might organize itself.

I've written about those in the past (albeit sometimes under a different
name) and will, I'm sure, in the future. This isn't meant to be an
exhaustive article, just a comment on the situation that's presented in the
last couple of weeks in May.

Joaquín





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