Thinking Tech

Piracy now unstoppable? New file-sharing network can't be shut down

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Tribler's file-sharing network is decentralized and operates like a social network.

We can all get the sense that the US government has suddenly gotten really serious about cracking down on online piracy. Yet it may ultimately become a moot point as a team of developers have designed a file sharing technology that they claim is impossible to shut down.

Tribler, a bit torrent file-sharing network, has actually been around for five years, operating underneath the radar as users flocked to popular piracy gateways such as the Pirate Bay and BTjunkie. But during that time period, researchers at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands were designing Tribler as a way share files without the need for centralized servers. The open-source client uses an overlay network (a computer network built on top of another network) for users to search and download files directly from one another. And since there's no listing site to index the files, there's no specified point of which to attack or take it offline.

“Our key scientific quest is facilitating unbounded information sharing,” Tribler leader Dr. Pouwelse told TorrentFreak. “We simply don’t like unreliable servers. With Tribler we have achieved zero-seconds downtime over the past six years, all because we don’t rely on shaky foundations such as DNS, web servers or search portals.”

The latest attempt by authorities to combat illegal file-sharing has fueled what has become a firestorm of controversy. Back in January, Wikipedia and other major web sites held a temporarily black out in protest of SOPA and PIPA, a pair of congressional bills proposed as as a means of protecting intellectual property. The backlash, however, forced politicians to back off momentarily and instead turn their efforts to shutting down sites that served as forums for rampant piracy. Not too long after that, the FBI in co-operation with New Zealand law enforcement arrested MegaUpload founder Kim Dot Com, a bold move that spooked similar sites like BTJunkie and the Pirate Bay into voluntarily ending access to Bit Torrent.

But just as it appeared as though authorities were on the cusp of dismantling the massive infrastructure that supported the kind of activity the entertainment industry considered highway robbery, technology may in the end have the upper hand. Tribler has undergone an incubation and testing period of six years and during that time has never been knocked offline. In fact, the software functions similarly to social networks like Facebook in that users can mark other users as friends. Those people can be used to increase the download speed of files by borrowing their upload capacity. The program also monitors the user's downloading preferences and uses that information to recommend other content, a feature similar to online radio sites like Last.fm. The latest version even includes the option to edit torrent names and descriptions Wikipedia style.

Here's a more detailed explanation of how the client works as reported by Torrent Freak, the site that broke the story:

Like many other BitTorrent clients, Tribler has a search box at the top of the application. However, the search results that appear when users type in a keyword don’t come from a central index. Instead, they come directly from other peers.

Downloading a torrent is also totally decentralized. When a user clicks on one of the search results, the meta-data is pulled in from another peer and the download starts immediately. Tribler is based on the standard BitTorrent protocol and uses regular BitTorrent trackers to communicate with other peers. But, it can also continue downloading when a central tracker goes down.

The same is true for spam control. Where most torrent sites have a team of moderators to delete viruses, malware and fake files, Tribler uses crowd-sourcing to keep the network clean. Content is verified by user generated “channels”, which can be “liked” by others. When more people like a channel, the associated torrents get a boost in the search results.

With other BitTorrent sites folding in the face of legal pressure, Tribler's network may emerge as the last bastion for file sharers, both legal or illegal. However, much of that will depend on how the researchers go about refining the software and whether enough people adopt the software since it relies on the network of users to function as a clearinghouse of sorts. Since Wednesday, rising demand has forced Tribler to reduce the site to just the download page to comply with demand.

And if authorities really want to take out the network, there's always the nuclear option.

“The only way to take it down," Pouwelse told Torrent Freak. "is to take The Internet down.”

(via Torrent Freak)

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure