Why BitTorrent is selling itself like potato chips


A new BitTorrent billboard in New York City. (BitTorrent Inc.)

BitTorrent — perhaps best known in the tech world for providing the Internet plumbing for Pirate Bay, a notorious site frequently used to illegally share copyrighted material — is now making a play for the mainstream.

Travelers on both coasts are being greeted by BitTorrent Inc. ads that are in line with traditional Madison Avenue marketing: "Your Data Belongs to You," reads one such billboard on New York City's TriBeCa neighborhood. Reads another, in San Francisco's SoMa, "People > Servers," using the mathematical symbol for "greater than."

Last October, the company ran a mysterious, tongue-in-cheek set of billboard ads that proclaimed, "Your Data Should Belong to the NSA." It was a subversive riff on the then-emerging privacy debate sparked by Edward Snowden revelations on government surveillance programs.

While the original ads did not initially identify BitTorrent, which also specializes in online data sharing, the new ones do right off the bat. Company officials say they realized that the time for bluntness has arrived.

More than a dozen years after getting its start as a grad school project, BitTorrent is making a push to sell itself to a mainstream audience, in light of the growing interest in law enforcement cellphone tracking, the recent Supreme Court case over who owns user data, even Anonymous's hacking efforts. "The Internet was designed to be a decentralized network," says Eric Klinker, BitTorrent Inc.'s chief executive. The way so much user data is collected in so few places "has made it trivially easy for governments and others" to tap into it, he says. The company is turning to billboards as a way of getting the public to re-embrace the Internet's original design.

"It's where we've always been," says Klinker, "and the world is starting to move in our direction."

Part of the timing, says the company, has to do with their new products, aimed at reducing the ability for users' communications to be snooped upon or hacked. They're meant to be free, consumer-friendly replacements for everyday tools. Two weeks ago, BitTorrent rolled out Bleep, a server-less chat tool that allows users to communicate directly with one another, that is still in pre-alpha release. And they also offer Sync, a tool for backing up your files without relying upon a centralized server.

BitTorrent works off the idea of the "swarm," where people volunteer their computers to share content that has been chopped up into pieces directly with one another, rather than running through any one server. In recent months, the company has formed formal partnerships with established players in the entertainment industry. In February, for example, BitTorrent announced that it was working with Hollywood studies and music artists like Lady Gaga and Moby to distribute movies and music. Still, BitTorrent has functioned at the margins of the Internet, far less known than Google, Twitter or Facebook.

The company is aiming to change that. Their potential success marks a remarkable evolution. The country's at a fascinating moment: A growing public wariness about surveillance is meeting a sense that there are steps individuals can to protect their data. And so we're seeing  peer-to-peer file-sharing services being packaged and sold like potato chips, imported beer or a new BMW.

The ads are, at the moment, in San Francisco, at the corner of Harrison and Fourth streets and on Route 101 between the city and San Francisco International Airport. And in New York City, there are a pair of ads on Canal Street, near Sixth Avenue. The messaging may change, says the company, but the ads are scheduled to run through the end of the year.


A new BitTorrent billboard in San Francisco (BitTorrent Inc.)

"It's an extension of what we're calling our 'Distributed Manifesto,' " says Jascha Kaykas-Wolff, chief marketing officer of BitTorrent Inc. They're meant to highlight what the company does in ways that lead potential customers to their products, though only obliquely. The ads don't mention their specific offerings; the company, it says, still expects those made curious by the ads to go online and search for them.

"It's unfortunate," says Kayaks-Wolff, of world events that have made the public newly skittish, "but it provides an opportunity for us as a company."

Nancy Scola is a reporter who covers the intersections of technology and public policy, politics, and governance.
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