Saturday, April 16, 2011

"Mind" -> Sharing Other People's Stuff

"What's a torrent?" my friend asked me at work.

This question is at the center of attention for everything today.  Not the specific question of the torrent, mind you.  The question about "what is this thing that you are talking about that I don't know about although a million people are using it?" This question is a question of the Internet, of changing culture, or a digital gap and divide.  Technology is merging into our lives, yet the culture is not quite ready to deal with it.  My friend is about 10 years younger than me, so to my mind he is a young kid.  However, what I don't realize, as I approach 50 years of age, is that I am one of the few of the digital elite that treat the cloud like some of my peers treat sports.  For them, it was sports that they grew up, and watched, and loved.  They stay up on all the new teams and players, and they will be talking about them until they retire.  I don't like sports, but I do watch high technology.

However this blog post is not about me.  This post is about cool things that I think that you should have on your web 2.0 list.  Because I start off talking about Torrents, I will start talking about this.

If you have never heard of Torrenting, here is my advice.  Don't do it.

Torrents are devices for sharing files.  They allow you to download information from many other people computers on the web.  The assumption is that any file you have may be stored on other peoples computers, therefore, if you want to get a file, you can ask many people to send you a part of it.  By doing this, you aren't requiring anybody to store this file in one spot.  Now, the big driving force behind torrenting is media sharing.  Whenever you hear somebody talking about massive fines being levied because of a lawsuit by the RIAA, is it normally because of torrenting activity.

However, let's say you have to know about torrents because of your curiosity.  You aren't going to apply them, but you want to sound savvy to your 15 year old.  So with that being said, here is a bit more description on the torrent subculture.

Torrents are normally for people to pick up either pirated music, pirated video, or pirated books.  One of the most popular clients for Torrents is uTorrent, and this is the defacto standard in the industry.  If you must, you can Google uTorrent and download the client.  It is painless and fast to find it. 

Can you find information on torrents that is NOT of a pirated nature?  The answer is absolutely.  The problem is that you need to ask "why?"  What ever you can get on a Torrent, normally you can find with a direct download from some aggregator some where.  You need a Casio manual for some lost watch of yours?  Better to go to Casio or look on the manual tab at Amazon.  You have a much better chance of find the data that you want there.

However, let's say that you want to see what is up with Torrents.  You've download uTorrent, and the question is "now what?"

For a torrent to work, it needs to be handed a tracker.  This tracker has is a signature files that basically allows uTorrent to say "I want this particular set of files."  Torrent tracker sites are where all the action happens.  To make torrents effective you need this file.  Without this small file, programs like uTorrent don't have any ability to download (or upload) any files.  For purposes of this post, I don't even want to mention all of the major torrent sites, as it would only indicate that I support piracy.  I don't want to indicate that I do support piracy in any fashion.  However, I do find myself using torrents for a special subsection of files:  Anime and Anime OSTs.

Here is the old logo of the Nyaatorrent site found at  This is a torrent site just aimed at anime, which seems to be on a strange side of the law because generally Japanese anime creators have chosen not to aggressively pursue their IP rights on this.  (See this post.)

To get the torrent going, assuming that you've found something that clearly will not be pursued for IP issues (which is beyond the scope of this post, but generally, you should see if there is a USA distributor, then you'll been treading on toes), all you need to do is click on the "Download" button, and it will find your uTorrent software and go out and find other computers on the internet that have the same file or files.

As your client finds other computers on the internet, it makes two choices:  who will I download from and who will I upload to.  In other words, once you start downloading a file, you also start to upload the file.  Let's say that you start to download the file, and you get only 5% of it.  Your client is smart enough to be able to pass the 5% of the file you have to somebody else who doesn't have any of the file.  Therefore, the original person with the file can immediately offload sharing all of the file by the people downloading sharing whatever they've already gotten downloaded.

Now, you can chose not to upload anything at all.  Then you'll be called a leacher, for obvious reasons.  Generally, you need to know something about the client to be able to turn off the uploading part, therefore, newbies will not turn it off.

Most of the lawsuits on music is on this tracking issue.  Because Torrents get pulled both ways (you download and you upload) the RIAA goes after not the download, but the uploading portion.  In other words, there is an limited amount of damage that they can claim if you steal the music from them for your own personal use. Basically, you've stolen one copy.  However, as soon as you start uploading, they claim that you have become a distributor, and therefore have kept them from multiple sales.

Now, some of the above is a moot point.  The major legal arm of this was the RIAA, and they were pursuing individuals.  However, the lawsuits were very expensive, and at the end of the day, suing the average american doesn't bring in a lot of money.  To the other side, it was creating a lot of negative PR.  On top of this, it was forcing a lot of people to get creative and perhaps create a whole new technology for sharing files.

So, the RIAA stopped suing individuals at the end of 2008.  Any lawsuits in progress are still going on, and this is where the last publicity on individuals being sued is coming from.  Also, the RIAA was basically picking up the smaller individuals who simply weren't all that tech smart.  The smart guys were using alternatives.

Four major alternatives were coming to the forefront:

1. VPNs
2. Newgroups

3. Sites like Megaupload
4. Private trackers

The way that the RIAA was finding the individuals that were downloading is by becoming a downloader and uploader like everybody else.  Once you get in the middle of the torrent, you can see everybody that is uploading or downloading.

This can be seen in the picture above.  In this case, I've found a file that I am downloading from Nyaatorrents, which all the downloaders can be seen under the "IP" label.  uTorrent even puts a little flag to show what country the people send you bits of the file live in.  As you can see, because this is a anime site, most of the people for this torrent live in Japan.

Once you have somebody's IP address, you can sue their Internet provider.

However, it is possible to change your IP address by running a VPN.  A VPN allows you to make all of your requests for data come out of a certain place in the world.  For example, you may live in Washington state, but you can find a VPN service that would make all of your requests for data come out of Russia.  While the RIAA will sue a USA company, they really don't want to start an international lawsuit.  This will be very true of Russia, where they don't care about USA copyright laws today.  Why should they spend time on this?  Let the Americas deal with American pirates.

Therefore, rather than going after the people, the RIAA and other trade associations are going after the people that list the prementioned "torrent tracker."  This is like the key for the car.  If you don't have a key to start the engine, you won't be able to download anything.  This is starting to take effect.  For example, Isohunt (a bad name because an ISO is a CD image) was sued and was found to be hosting piracy.  They are now blocked in the USA.  (Interestingly, though, they are not blocked outside the USA, and individuals with VPNs can poke their heads out in Russia, find the site, and then they can download just like they would have if they were in the USA.)

There are three other ways that individuals are getting around these problems.  As mentioned above, there are now clients to download media files from Newgroups.  Newsgroups are part of the history of the internet, and to make a long story short, they are like forums.  In this new avenue, individuals upload a bunch of special text that can be recompiled into a binary video or music file.  Because there is no trace of who posted the information, it is difficult for the RIAA to go after anybody.  (Difficult, but not impossible with enough time and money.)  Generally, the copyright people are too busy to shut this down today.

Similar to newgroups are a bunch of file hosting services that simply store files. The best known one is Megaupload.  If you find the right group of people, they will tell you where either music or video is stored in these file sharing sites.  While these sites will take down material if asked, generally, they are not being sued because the sole intention of these sites are not for piracy.  Therefore, it becomes a temporary shelf allow pirates to deliver stuff for a while.

The final option are private trackers, in which a smaller group of individuals share files.  The problem here is that if the group is big enough to have a lot of stuff, then it is not secure.  If it is not large enough, then it is secure but you probably don't have all the material somebody would want.

Finally, this list is not done.  I haven't even touched on getting books over IRC.  Quite frankly, Internet Relay Chat (IRC) is really a niche part of the internet. However, I mention it here, because the innovation of the pirate.

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