Thanks to the Internet, stealing is easy

The Feedster

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The arrival of the Internet didn’t automatically result in the unparalleled levels of piracy we see today, but the potential has always been there.
Right from the early days, private FTP sites and the Usenet newsgroup system have been used to exchange illicit content, in particular mature content and cracked software. This dates back well into the mid-1990s. But although these methods of illicit distribution were considered a problem, they didn’t warrant today’s headlines.
Piracy’s now the norm
Online piracy is no longer a niche for nerds. Nowadays, many kids grow up expecting to see the latest series of 24, Lost or Heroes via their computers long before it ever reaches the TV screen in the UK.
The practice is hardly viewed as being illegal, almost the same as lending a VHS copy to friends never was. Two factors have contributed to the recent ‘avalanche’. One is peer-to-peer (P2P) technology, and the other increased bandwidths through broadband.
Both tackle the performance problem, although P2P has also made prosecution much more tricky. The benefits of broadband are obvious, but as fast as it may be there is one drawback – the upstream bandwidth is always many times smaller than the downstream.
So broadband is not much good for sharing your files to lots of people. This is where P2P technology comes in. If lots of people are trying to get hold of the same file, they can contribute the bits they have downloaded already to other downloaders.
The small amount of upstream bandwidth each one contributes can then combine to make faster downloads for everyone. This capability of P2P technology is what has taken file sharing from the shady fringes out into the mainstream. The first popularisation of P2P has now become virtual legend.
Even your grandparents will probably have heard of Napster, and its demise at the hands of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). After Napster’s closure, services like Kazaa, LimeWire and Morpheus took over.
The golden age of BitTorrent
But the real P2P revolution was the introduction of the BitTorrent protocol. This splits files into identical pieces from 64KB to 1MB in size, which can then be sent non-sequentially, unlike a web or FTP download.
The protocol will request these pieces in random order, or even ask for those pieces found on the least number of peers first. A Torrent file contains data about the file, checksum information about the pieces, and the location of the ‘tracker’ – the computer coordinating the file distribution.
However, it’s also possible to do without the tracker entirely using BitTorrent’s Distributed Hash Table. This makes it virtually impossible to locate the originator of a file from the Torrent, and takes the onus away from the site hosting the Torrent file as well.
Even with trackerless BitTorrents, users still need to download the Torrent file to know where other peers and seeds are located on the Internet. This is generally performed by a simple database-driven website, with tools so visitors can search for the file they want, which will then give them a list of Torrent options.
These BitTorrent websites have become the new frontier of piracy in the last few years. Most famous among them was Suprnova.org, run by Andrej Preston (aka Sloncek). At the end of 2004, a major crackdown by the Moving Picture Association of America (MPAA) caused many of the popular Torrent sites to shut of their own accord, including Suprnova.org.
You can't keep a bad BitTorrent down
But instead of killing off BitTorrent-based piracy, attention merely turned to Swedish site The Pirate Bay, which has been cheekily cocking a snook at copyright holders, and Mininova, now the most popular BitTorrent site of all. But these two headliners are hardly alone.
There are numerous alternative options, including Toorgle, SuperTorrents, and isoHunt. The once infamous Demonoid was taken down by Canada’s CRIA at the end of 2007, but as one site is removed from the action, another emerges to take its place.
Despite aggressive legal actions, BitTorrent sites proliferate, and look increasingly bold and mainstream. They have been joined by websites which simply stream video content, such as QuickSilverScreen, Alluc.org and Veoh. Even Google Video and YouTube are being used to host video which hasn’t been uploaded legally, although content owners have taken action.
Viacom famously filed a $1billion lawsuit against YouTube in March 2007, which many considered to be the beginning of the end for the site. The lawsuit involves 160,000 clips with more than 1.5 billion views, but hasn’t resulted in the death of YouTube just yet.
In contrast, the BBC entered into a licensing deal instead, as have a few other major content owners.
Commercial file sharing
P2P technology isn’t intrinsically bad. The BBC’s iPlayer uses it, as does the Joost video service. But what’s more surprising is just how mainstream the pirate sites are beginning to look.
Most carry advertising – and not just for mature content and online dating services. Some of this is very mainstream indeed. Hop onto Mininova, and you may see adverts for Tesco and Alliance & Leicester. Yet scroll down the site and you will be able to access BitTorrents of the latest Hollywood blockbuster movies.
We asked Mininova how the site managed to balance mainstream advertising and large-scale content piracy. “We do not infringe any copyright. Torrent files clearly aren’t copyrighted,” explained Niek van der Maas, Mininova’s Business Development Director. “Besides that, many corporations have no problem targeting 29 million unique tech-savvy users (per month).”
Der Maas’s comment highlighted two important features of online piracy today, making it a particular thorn in the side of content owners. On the one hand, sites like Mininova don’t host any pirate content themselves – just the means to find it and access it from elsewhere.
Similarly, Alluc.org is a portal aggregating links to other streaming video sites. No ISP we know of has been successfully prosecuted for hosting Usenet groups used for distributing illegal content.
BitTorrent sites can similarly argue that they are a communications medium, although that argument didn’t work for Napster. But on the other hand, these sites can command a very powerful body of consumers.
At the time of writing, Mininova was the 53rd most popular website in the world, according to web information company Alexa.
Pirates or revolutionaries?
From our explanations so far, it should have become fairly obvious that music is no longer the focus of attention of online piracy. Instead, video is now the most popular content.
Movies and TV series are the new stock in trade, and not just as downloads, but streamed from video sharing sites. Even Google is great for finding torrents – just chuck in the name of what you’re looking for plus the word torrent. This shows how mainstream torrenting has become.
Radiohead’s album giveaway also showed that people do value music enough to pay for it even if they don’t have to. We talked to a couple of heavy users of online pirate video content services about their reasons for using them.
“Legitimate download content is still shooting itself in the foot,” explained ‘Tarquin’ (real name withheld). “It’s hard or impossible to move your video between devices legally. For me, the main point is that torrenting is by far the quickest and easiest way to get HD content, and content that I can watch when I want and how I want. It’s a lot easier than going out and buying a disc.”
Another online pirate, ‘Jalfrezi’ (again, real name withheld) told us: “I download mostly movies and TV episodes, but almost no music and software. I can just listen to music over web radio for free, and I’m fed up of downloading games just to find out they’re boring. If I do watch TV it’s either in the form of a series – downloaded or on DVD – or the BBC iPlayer.”
In other words, convenience is at least as important as getting the content for free. TV companies are now starting to offer their content online, such as Channel 4’s 4oD and the new ITV.com site which came fully online in the middle of 2007.
A number of hit American shows are available on iTunes, such as Lost, 24 and Desperate Housewives. But all of these are highly restrictive next to a movie file you can copy (or re-encode) to any device you want, or streaming video you can watch on any Internet-connected computer.
Private sites
Although plenty of video is widely available from the mainstream openly accessible BitTorrent sites, the structure of piracy hasn’t changed radically since the early days. Top of the tree, where the most exclusive files appear first, are still the private FTP sites.
The BitTorrent websites with the most illicit, high quality content are also by invitation only. A member needs to achieve a certain ‘ratio’ of uploading to downloading before they can invite others.
But the rewards of membership can be enormous, and the service available well beyond the hit-or-miss that users of public P2P networks like Kazaa will be used to. “Hdbits is sick, usually maxes out my connection within about 20 secs of selecting a torrent,” explains Tarquin, in reference to the invitation-only torrent site HDBits.org.
The site is capable of download speeds of 4GB an hour, or at least 2-3GB an hour. “You can get a 720p, medium quality version of a US TV show in about 20 minutes, and they’re usually up within six hours of airing."
Sky’s HD service is being ripped, while HD DVD and Blu-ray content is also readily available. Both HD-DVD and Blu-ray were cracked back in January 2007 by a hacker known as Muslix64.
Blu-ray discs with BD+ security proved a little harder to rip, but even this extra level of security fell to the cracker’s ingenuity back in November 2007.
Future theft models
All content protection systems, including the draconian hardware-based DRM schemes looming on the horizon, will inevitably be cracked.
Traditionally, content owners only controlled the means of producing and reproducing content. Now they see the need of controlling the act of consumption as well – how and where you watch or listen – to maintain or even increase their profits.
Online piracy is where the fight against that control is taking place. The writers’ strike in the US was about the same issue, but from a different perspective – content distribution companies have been refusing to share the profits from new online channels with writers.
For now, content owners continue to take the ‘big stick’ approach to piracy, trying terror tactics to discourage both websites and users. And decoy files containing false or broken content continue to be seeded into P2P systems, to frustrate downloaders.
However, realising the true nature of the threat is one thing. So far, too little has actually been done to provide services which are at least as convenient as what is available from BitTorrent and streaming sites.
“If I had the choice to watch ad-supported video, direct from the publisher, I would,” explains Jalfrezi. “Until that choice appears, or one like it, I’ll just keep on taking it for free.” In other words, until the legal alternatives get as easy and non-restrictive as the illegal ones, piracy is here to stay.
The full version of this article is published in PC Plus magazine, issue 268.


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