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Bit Torrent Technology As a Tool for Change

August 12, 2009

529px-The_Pirate_Bay_logoWith all of the legal troubles that bit torrent websites like The Pirate Bay have been having over the filesharing services they provide that enable countless (millions? billions?) copies of licensed digital products to go unpaid for, it seems that bit torrent technology itself is accruing a pretty bad image. Understably so, at least to those who don’t pirate digital intellectual property. However, in all of this publicity over this technology as a vehicle for stealing, I’m concerned we might not see the good this technology could do.

Whenever I come across anything that involves potentially spreading information in a way that transfers knowledge from being concentrated into the hands of a few to the hands of many, I can’t help but think of the Information Divide and the implications for international development. So, naturally I think about this when I think about bit torrent technology. I personally feel that digital piracy that causes intellectual property holders like filmmakers, musicians, and programmers to lose money is merely one aspect to this technology. But what about the development aspects?

This has been particularly present in my mind as I have been reading Chris Anderson’s book Free: The Future of a Radical Price. In the book, he discusses at length the trend toward business models offering content for free. With digital content, in particular, the costs of distribution are trending to zero, making it affordable to deliver content for free, and raising questions about the future of pay models. He references Stewart Brand, who famously said, “On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”

Now, let’s connect this to international development.

Overcoming oppression

One of the reasons bit torrent technology has been so successful at “stealing” intellectual property is that it is actually rather difficult to stop. The files that you download can be stored on hundreds, even thousands, of computers around the world. All you need is a bit torrent downloading program like Vuze, and a tiny bit torrent tracker file (which you can download from sites like The Pirate Bay), and you can access these files from these hundreds or thousands of computers. Should one of these computers be shutdown, you can still access the rest.

Of course, there have been companies and services out there trying to shut all of this down–from companies like Comcast, which has been reported as trying to block these downloads, to others posing as pirates, posting comments on bit torrent search sites saying that particular torrents have viruses or that they’ve been busted for downloading, warning others to stay away. Then, of course, there’s the attempt to control piracy through Digital Rights Management, which has been known to punish those who follow the rules more than those that break them.

I can’t say that I blame companies for this. But, it’s a little unfortunate that they have taken the approach of punishing people rather than pushing the business model forward, and embracing their loyal customers and offering incentive to “buy licensed”, rather than disincentive to “steal”.

What opponents to bit torrent technology don’t seem to realize is that this technology could be used for good. For instance, it has tremendous potential for uses that undermine authoritarian governments. If there’s one thing dictators hate, it’s when information spreads in a way they can’t control. And for good reason. People can use this information to learn the truth of what’s really happening, behind the propaganda, and to organize resistance movements. If you don’t think information is important to resistance, consider that the USSR engrained in people that the United States was a country of extreme destitution and poverty as a way to discourage any desire to side with “the enemy”.

Look what’s been happening in Iran lately, with all of that information flowing in and out of the country via digital technology. And then spend some time studying the amazing extent to which the government tries, and fails, to filter and censor the Internet completely of information it deems threatening. Information doesn’t just want to be free in this case. When information IS free, it challenges oppression.

Therefore, we should be looking at ways in which bit torrent technology can help promote the flow of information into and out of countries under authoritarian regimes.

Bridging the Digital and Information Divides

In my work in media development in sub-Saharan Africa and eastern Europe, one thing I have found is a tremendous disparity in access to information between these regions and those of the developed countries. Spend some time on this blog, and you will find story after story of how media development is really about going to countries where people face unbelievable obstacles to information and working to overcome these obstacles. It is extremely difficult to effectively lead your country, manage your resources, and protect your rights when information is concentrated into the hands of the powerful few. Yet, this is the case for much of the developing world, and overcoming this is a key to lifting people out of poverty and helping them to become independent agents with some kind of control over their future.

Throw into this mix that the digital penetration rate is much lower in these countries. Fewer computers per capita. Considerably lower bandwidth per capita. While so much of the most current information is now being published primarily in digital form, and therefore widely available in developed countries due to much higher rates of digital penetration.

Yet, hardware isn’t the only factor in this Divide. Even where there are computers and Internet connections in these countries, there is still a predominance of need for training in computer and Internet software. Think about it: a fishing rod isn’t going to catch the fish for you. You have to know how to use it.

This is further complicated by costs associated with software. Software companies that charge for their software tend to charge developed country rates in a lot of these countries, which few can afford (when I was in Ukraine in 2005, to buy licensed copies of programs like Photoshop cost a month’s salary or more for most of the people in my town). Now, that is changing in many cases. Microsoft, in particular, has cut prices in places like China. But, this didn’t really change until companies realized they couldn’t stop the massive piracy in developing countries, and decided to drop their prices to something much more reasonable as a way to at least slow it.

A lot of Internet software is free. Except even that looks better on the surface than underneath. The new model these days is to have the Basic version come for free, but the Premium version, with the real functionality, come with a price. Those prices don’t really change from country to country, going back to that cost disparity issue. Also, even for programs out there that are completely free, many require you to pay for training sessions and/or books to learn how to use them.

Bit torrent technology can help for overcome these information and digital divides.

As I say that, however, I certainly don’t want to simply advocate for a system that “steals” from the companies that are investing time and money to develop products, only to have them go to these countries without any kind of return. However, I would like to reference Anderson’s book Free again, in which he noted the case of Windows piracy in China. He said that for years, people in China pirated Windows when they couldn’t afford it. Over time, China experienced an economic boom, which in turn lifted people out of poverty. Following that lift, people started buying licensed copies of Windows, instead, having gotten so accustomed to Windows software. So, “free” may have hurt Microsoft in the short-run, but ultimately helped them in the long-run.

My Point is Merely This

Spend a little time walking around the mainland area of Lagos, and you will start to see what real poverty looks like. Keeping technological and cost barriers in place isn’t helping these people. Particularly since they live in a country that has a huge wealth of oil, and yet a government so corrupt and inept that “the people” rarely benefit from it, or even have access to any real information on what they could benefit from. What would happen IF they their access to information technology and information itself started to trend upward?

Perhaps looking the other way on the issue of bit torrent technology and intellectual property piracy isn’t the solution. But, this technology makes it dramatically easier to distribute and share information that is crucial for people to lift themselves out of poverty and perhaps even compete on the global stage.

How can we not start thinking about ways in which this technology can be used for good?

Author’s Note:  As I wrote this post, I was downloading a copy of last night’s Phish concert using bit torrent technology. This copy was recorded by one of the many fans at the concert with permission from the band to record and distribute this material for free. Phish fans will tell you that one of the big reasons they love Phish and are motivated to keep going to so many shows is that the band endorses this practice of distributing copies of their shows for free. In other words, giving this away for free means they make money elsewhere. Chris Anderson would be proud.

Photo 1:  Courtesy of The Pirate Bay.

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