Piracy vs. privacy in the online world

December 23, 2011

Tryst in Adams Morgan is a cavernous coffee shop almost always filled with people clacking away on their laptops. Washington-based freelancers jokingly refer to it as their office thanks to the free wireless Internet on weekdays.

Last month, a customer used that wireless to order up more than a latte. Someone sitting in the café downloaded three episodes of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” using a torrent file.

I know this not because I snoop over shoulders at Tryst, but because a Russian Web site producer named Suren Ter-Saakov decided to expose the sometimes nefarious activities of torrent file sharers online with his new site YouHaveDownloaded.com. Just log on to the site and it greets you with the friendly message: “Hi Pirate!” or “Hi, we have no records on you.”

A torrent primer: Torrents allow people to share large files by breaking them down across different computers. Picture the scene in “Willy Wonka” where one of the golden ticket winners, Mike Tevee, wants to be transported via Wonkavision. He’s split into a million pieces and transported through the air, only to be reassembled on the other side of the room. Torrent files work in a similar way.

Ter-Saakov built the site in part to shine a light on the controversial piece of legislation Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which is being debated in the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives. Supporters of the bill include the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America. The trade groups argue that the legislation is necessary to combat rampant online piracy. “This legislation is a first step towards a brighter day when these rogue offshore websites can no longer duck accountability under U.S. laws,” said RIAA Chairman Cary Sherman, in a statement on the group’s Web site.


Do you know who is using your IP?

Opponents of the bill, including most technology companies, think the provisions are too broad and could force Web sites that allow users to upload content — such as YouTube or Reddit — to shut down. The evolution of products online happens so fast and is filtered through so many users in so many new ways that clamping down on illegal activity is akin to participating in a global whack-a-mole game.

Torrents have become associated closely with the flagrant online piracy of copyrighted material. It has become an easy way for people to find the television shows they missed (or don’t have an HBO subscription for), the movie that has just been released in the theater or the latest video game available in Japan but not yet released in the United States.

Ter-Saakov created his site as a way to remind people about the public nature of torrent transfers, which can easily be traced by media companies looking to sue torrent users. But Ter-Saakov says he didn’t do it as a warning to torrent-sharers to hide their trails better.

“I build content, and I don’t like people to steal the content. It is stealing. They steal because they think no one can see them,” Ter-Saakov said. Rather, he did it to create an analogy to what SOPA could do. Lawmakers could hypothetically blame a Web site for an unruly user, much like Tryst coffee shop is blamed on his site for the behavior of the one errant customer. He thinks the law would give unrestricted power to companies. “In the choice between thieves and tyrants — I’ll choose thieves. Not because I like them, but because tyrants are worse,” he said.

YouHaveDownloaded tracks IP addresses, or the networks you log on to, and has about 50 million addresses so far. Still, Ter-Saakov says he has captured only about 20 percent of torrent-using addresses. Need proof of how pervasive the practice is? Some of the fiercest lobbyists for SOPA and the biggest copyright holders can find this problem on their own home turf.

TorrentFreak, a niche news Web site dedicated to tracking torrent news, used YouHaveDownloaded and discovered that someone using an RIAA-registered IP address downloaded five seasons of “Dexter” and music from Jay-Z.

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