What is BitTorrent? A Cypherpunk History of BitTorrent and BTT token
BitTorrent, like Bitcoin, is one of the most divisive and widely-proliferated of the web’s innovations.
To many in the crypto space, Bitcoin is seen as the O.G protocol that used cryptographic technology on a decentralized, peer-to-peer network, but the BitTorrent protocol, which has over 2 billion historical installations to date, was doing much the same thing a full 8 years prior.
But what is BitTorrent, where did it come from, and what are the use cases of the BTT token?
To establish the importance of BitTorrent, we have to go back two decades, to a time where visionary cypherpunks (including the pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto) were emailing each other as to whether a solution to financial corruption could be found through cryptography.
Read on for our cypherpunk history of BitTorrent.
What is BitTorrent, and how does BitTorrent work?
By the late ’90s, computer programmer Bram Cohen had coded for various Dotcom companies that had subsequently dissolved into bankruptcy. He decided to create his own project that internet users would actually be able to use, for free.
The original design, put in place by 2001, was ‘aimed at geeks who need a cheap way to swap Linux software online’. To use BitTorrent, it was (and still is) necessary to download a BitTorrent client such as uTorrent or qBittorent.
One of the main innovations of the protocol was that it used multiple peers (swarms) to facilitate downloads, instead of just connecting to one source, a la Napster and Kazaa. This gave people with lower bandwidth capability a chance to join in with file-sharing activities, and helped Cohen realise his idea of increasing distribution speed by breaking up large files into smaller pieces.
With BitTorrent, the first uploader of a file (or torrent) is the seed, and those who download the torrent files are peers, until the download is complete, when they also become a seed. Each seed then owns a piece of the file, which is protected by a cryptographic hash (like a digital key code) contained in the torrent descriptor. The more seeds there are across the network, the faster it becomes to download the file.
BitTorrent and similar distributed download protocols also benefit from having no one single point of failure, as the process does not rely on any single machine or system. Around the beginning of the broadband era, when the idea of downloading a movie onto your computer was novel, it was said that BitTorrent accounted for more than one-third of all traffic on the internet. Bram Cohen had not only made “something that people would actually use”, but one of the most downloaded pieces of software in the history of the internet.
If this sounds familiar, that’s probably not a coincidence. Satoshi Nakamoto himself was seemingly inspired by BitTorrent. In a historical email archived by the Satoshi Nakamoto Institute, the founder of Bitcoin says:
“For transferable proof of work tokens to have value, they must have monetary value. To have monetary value, they must be transferred within a very large network - for example a file trading network akin to bittorrent.”
Why did BitTorrent succeed while other file-sharing networks failed?
Contrary to popular belief, BitTorrent is not a service that provides users with free movies and music to download, but a protocol that makes it easier for people to share large files with each other over the internet. This is perhaps the key distinction behind its success in a field that has a long history of litigation.
Napster, for example, was one of the pioneering services that helped millions of teenagers across the globe share mp3 audio files. It was active only between 1999 and 2001, and was famously brought down by unlikely copyright sticklers Metallica and Dr Dre, even though many other artists, such as Radiohead and Public Enemy’s Chuck D, publicly supported the file sharing service.
The teens of the early noughties found a new file-sharing community at Morpheus, and then soon afterward at Kazaa, which was subsequently bought by a Dutch company, Consumer Empowerment. The private enterprise was later sued for $100 million by various music companies, and then tried to become a legal, paid download site. This was also short-lived, and Kazaa was later identified as a spyware application, due to the large amount of malware that had been bundled into downloads.
The Pirate Bay is one of a handful of sites that index a large amount of torrents for download through “magnet links” that open in BitTorrent. Torrent index sites are vulnerable to legal action because many of the torrents contain copyrighted material. The Pirate Bay famously received a cease-and-desist notice from Dreamworks, demanding that they remove a torrent of Shrek 2. The reply given was:
"Sweden is not a state in the United States of America. Sweden is a country in northern Europe [and] US law does not apply here. … It is the opinion of us and our lawyers that you are f**king morons."
The three Swedish founders of the site have since served a small amount of time in jail, and torrents like Shrek 2 have to be continuously re-uploaded to new servers, once the old ones are shut down.
To the more pragmatic players of the cypherpunk movement, it became apparent that being a ‘legitimate’ centralized entity made your protocol more vulnerable, not less, and that files had to be distributed, not hosted on a centralized server. In an email to computer scientist Hal Finney, Satoshi said:
“Governments are good at cutting off the heads of a centrally controlled networks like Napster, but pure P2P networks like Gnutella and Tor seem to be holding their own.”
The BitTorrent team have probably walked the line better than most, as demonstrated when they made a deal with the Motion Picture Association to remove illegal download links from the main BitTorrent website, and stated their willingness to comply with the Digital Millenium Copyright Act.
BitTorrent also does not offer anonymity to users, leaving the IP addresses inside the “swarm” to be seen openly. Users who value privacy and security often route the file transfers through onion networks like Tor, or use a VPN (virtual private network) that masks their IP address.
What is Bittorent BTT token, and why is it needed?
Bittorrent was acquired by Tron in July 2018, and the BTT token was launched to reward users for their bandwidth, with downloaders being given the option of paying uploaders in BTT tokens, in exchange for a faster download speed. Uploaders are also financially incentivized, with Tron founder Justin Sun explaining that:
“At this point, there is no incentive for peers who have completed downloading to continue to seed. We intend to extend the rewards to peers who seed torrents, infusing more resources into the current ecosystem.”
BTT tokens are airdropped to holders of the Tron TRX token every month, and this will continue until February 2025. BitTorrent under Tron offers several “premium” versions of the original P2P platform, with promises of faster downloads, ad-free viewing and built-in VPN protection. The project is also offering the BitTorrent File System, a decentralized storage system similar to projects such as Filecoin and Siacoin, which helps improve security by spreading out files across a distributed network.
Still, at the time of the acquisition, many in the crypto space pointed out that Bittorent had survived without a crypto token for almost 20 years. Why does it need one now?
For some insight into this question, Exodus spoke to Justin Knoll, who worked as VP of Product Management at Bittorrent for 10 years:
“Blockchain technology is a very powerful addition to file sharing because it allows the construction of new mechanisms and systems of incentives.”
Knoll explained that one of the biggest challenges with traditional file sharing is making sure that more niche files can be accessed just as easily as the popular ones:
“It works quite well to coordinate hundreds of millions of simultaneous users to store and retrieve the most popular data, but if you look at the entire universe… research shows that as much as 38% of files become unavailable at some point during their first month. Adding crypto-economic incentives to this picture allows better persistence and retrievability guarantees, which allows for many more applications.”
The future of the distributed web
Bram Cohen spoke of his belief that the media model of the early 2000’s was outmoded, and protocols like BitTorrent and Napster began what streaming services like Netflix and Prime finished; hammering the final nail into the coffin of terrestrial television.
Broadcasting companies no longer need huge budgets and the backing of a large TV network to produce and distribute content. Web 2.0 and social media provided an instant platform for millions, and Web 3.0, through projects like BTT, Brave Browser and Theta.tv, will take us even further, removing kingmakers like YouTube and Amazon from the equation.
As Knoll says:
“We're still at the beginning of the web. Web 1 was about democratizing access to the means of information creation, but with ultimately familiar experiences; Web 2 shifted the paradigm with new experiences enabled by programmability, unfortunately resulting in a lot of re-centralization, and now Web 3 is poised to shift things once more in ways that we can't fully anticipate. It's an exciting time to be in the space.”
This content is for informational purposes only and is not investment advice. You should consult a qualified licensed advisor before engaging in any transaction.