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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 February 2006, 11:56 GMT
A bit of BitTorrent bother
Adam Livingstone
By Adam Livingstone
Producer, BBC Newsnight

As Newsnight's resident ubergeek, I've been asked to respond to the torrent of abuse streamed our way over our piece on Friday 24 February about BitTorrent and encryption.

Read some of your comments

A file sharing diagram
Yes, we know - file sharing is definitely not theft
As a man who hacked his first home internet connection back in 1994 (my then boss used his daughter's name as a password) and downloaded his first Star Trek off Peer to Peer back in 2000 (for research purposes only of course - I never inhaled) I hope I know my way around the block.

First though, an apology. File sharing is not theft. It has never been theft. Anyone who says it is theft is wrong and has unthinkingly absorbed too many Recording Industry Association of America press releases. We know that script line was wrong. It was a mistake. We're very, very sorry.

If copyright infringement was theft then I'd be in jail every time I accidentally used football pix on Newsnight without putting "Pictures from Sky Sport" in the top left corner of the screen. And I'm not. So it isn't. So you can stop telling us if you like. We hear you.

Railways and canals

Now we've got that out the way, let us ask you a question. Why is it that every time the media starts to talk about the internet they feel compelled to bang on about paedophiles and terrorists and generally come over like a cross between Joe McCarthy and the Childcatcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?

Although internet service providers sell their internet connections as unlimited usage, if people actually take them up on the offer then they can't actually cope with demand
Well here's one answer - it sells copy. Another answer is that we're totally scared of new media, because new media is railways and we're canals, and you all just know how that's going to end.

So we seek to equate the internet with all bad things to scare you off it. At some corporate freudian level, there's some truth to that accusation.

Traffic shaping

But there's a third explanation as well. Sometimes it's legitimate.

Friday's piece sought to make a very sophisticated point in the space of four minutes. The point was this: a file sharing protocol called BitTorrent now takes up a third of internet traffic, even by the most conservative estimates. The true figure is probably higher.

Some internet service providers aren't very pleased about that, because although they sell their internet connections as unlimited usage, if people actually take them up on the offer then they can't actually cope with demand.

"Boo hoo," I hear you say to them. "Build some more wires in or whatever it is you do. That's what we pay you for." But no. The wicked ISPs have, increasingly, opted to block BitTorrent (and indeed other P2P protocols as well) using technology known as traffic shaping.

Encrypting torrents

A couple of months ago a person of my very close acquaintance [cough cough] was giving his in-laws their weekly fix of Desperate Housewives when he noticed that their Plusnet connection was resolutely not shifting the torrent.

A person at a computer
Torrent traffic accounts for more than a third of the internet
But as soon as he switched to another torrenting program called Bitcomet, the data just came pouring through. What was going on? Well the answer was simple. There's a mysterious man somewhere on this planet called "RnySmile". He creates and updates the Bitcomet programme, and he'd reprogrammed the damn thing to encrypt the torrents so that it was goodbye "traffic shaping".

Now this was such a good idea that all the other BitTorrent programmers leapt on it within weeks. As of last weekend the three biggest torrent programs carry automatic encryption and Plusnet and friends are looking at a big hole in their metaphorical dyke. Happy ending, you might say? I couldn't possibly comment.

'Swamp of encryption'

However all this made us think the following: if torrent traffic is 30% and more of the internet, and it's going encrypted at a rate of knots, then where does that leave the spooks, spies and other law enforcement professionals who sit around monitoring the internet all day?

Sure, the RC4 encryption in question isn't so very powerful, but the sheer quantity of it we're envisaging will make decrypting it all an impossibility.

At the moment, there's little enough encrypted data flying around that using encryption for villainous purposes would just attract attention to yourself. But in the swamp of encryption that's in prospect, that will no longer be the case.


Which brings us back to paedophiles and terrorists. If you ask the security services and the police why they monitor the internet, those are the bogeymen they claim to be chasing.

In a four minute piece, we're sort of obliged to take that at face value. And it's our contention that they're not very well going to be able to do that if they're swamped by encrypted torrent data.

This proposition brought us so much sh*t that it had to be continued on the next fan. A howl of primal outrage uttered from cyberspace that we were equating copyright infringement with theft (yes we did - sorry about that) and with paedo-terror (no we didn't).

What we'd really like to hear is a debate on the issue we did raise. If the ISPs can't now detect torrent data, then how will the security services manage it? And if they do figure it out, won't RnySmile and company just up the ante again?

And is this secret war between Hollywood and the ISPs on the one side and the P2P community on the other one that can ever end in a truce, or will the stakes just keep raising and raising to the detriment of us all?

Answers on a plain text postcard please.

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