The BitTorrent lawsuit: why Sly Stallone is out to get you

When it comes to illegal downloading, are we all expendable? Claudio Onorati/EPA

Ever downloaded a Hollywood flick from the internet?

If the answer is “yes” then you could be next on Rambo’s hit list. As reported recently, an American federal judge has agreed to allow the U.S. Copyright Group to subpeona at least 23,000 BitTorrent users for illegally downloading Sylvester Stallone’s meat-head heavy film The Expendables.

This decision could effect the single largest illegal BitTorrent downloading case in U.S history.

How do BitTorrent users access licensed content?

The majority of internet users employ BitTorrent technology to download and share licensed content.

BitTorrent uses customised peer-to-peer protocols to facilitate the sharing of content among its users. The use of peer-to-peer technology ensures there is no requirement for a single server to act as a content aggregator and distributor.

The users share the content directly with each other, which makes BitTorrent very efficient at delivering content to a large user base.

BitTorrent is one of the most popular file sharing technologies for several reasons. It uses a tit-for-tat system that rewards users for uploading content. The BitTorrent protocol also breaks large content files into very small chunks of data: this means users can download the file from multiple locations simultaneously, reducing the download time substantially. This makes it especially useful for large and popular files.

How can Rocky, or anyone else, track BitTorrent users?

The decentralised nature of BitTorrent technology makes it hard to track users that have downloaded a specific piece of content. But content owners can use sophisticated techniques to track the perpetrators.

Users trying to download a file have to obtain a torrent file associated with that piece of content. This file stores information about the various chunks of data associated with the larger content file and, more importantly, the location of all tracker files on the internet.

Tracker files store information about the active users sharing (uploading or downloading) the file. A new user is therefore able to connect to one or more of these active users and download the file.

Content owners often pretend to be normal users wanting to share the file. This allows them to be part of the tracker file and, in return, they have access to other active users (or IP addresses) sharing the file. These IP addresses are then forwarded to internet service providers (ISPs), the owners of which are obliged to provide details to the content owners.

This method of detection, though crude, is effective because popular content often has a large active user base. Furthermore, content providers are pressuring ISPs to install filters that can detect BitTorrent traffic and detect whether users are accessing licensed content. Such techniques are helping content owners successfully shut down sites that host torrent files for licensed content.

Could the Expendables case be a knockout blow for illegal BitTorrent use?

Despite (or maybe because of) its notoriety, BitTorrent’s popularity keeps on growing, with 100 million active users and a large percentage of total internet traffic attributed to the technology.

As a company, BitTorrent provides the most efficient CDN (Content Delivery Network) product to its customers. A large number of businesses use it to distribute content.

Given its ubiquity, BitTorrent will continue to be used for delivering content – legal and illegal. Perhaps the company can improve its technology to differentiate legitimate users from the troublemakers who upload and share illegal content.

This will definitely help the Schwarzeneggers and Stallones of the world in their mission to catch the bad guys. And when they do … well, you’d better start running …

Should people be sued for illegal downloading? Leave your comments below

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