BitTorrent brings file-sharing protocol to Web browsing

BitTorrent brings file-sharing protocol to Web browsing
A screen grab from the BitTorrent Inc. blog announcement for Project Maelstrom on Wednesday. (BitTorrent Inc.)

Could BitTorrent turn out to be an Internet service provider's best friend?

Half a dozen years ago, the popular file-sharing protocol was nothing but a headache for ISPs as broadband users filled their connections with torrent files (most often, movies and songs that were being shared illegally). Things got so bad that one ISP, Comcast, surreptitiously sabotaged BitTorrent sessions, leading the Federal Communications Commission to penalize the company for violating the FCC's net neutrality principles.

The dispute between the FCC and Comcast set off a battle over net neutrality rules that continues to this day. Meanwhile, however, BitTorrent Inc. -- the San Francisco company responsible for the technology -- made an important change to the way the software transmits data. When it senses congestion, it pulls back on the throttle to make room for more time-sensitive data packets, such as audio and video streams. That change has significantly reduced the amount of torrent traffic in peak Internet usage times, to the benefit of ISPs and broadband users alike.

Now the company is trying to take its technology deeper into the Web. On Wednesday it unveiled Project Maelstrom, a browser that's built to surf the Web through the BitTorrent protocol. An ordinary browser draws content from websites directly, communicating with their servers to download Web pages, image files and the like. The Project Maelstrom browser, by contrast, draws content from the closest computer that has a copy available.


The point is to spread out the task of distributing content to avoid bottlenecks. With the BitTorrent protocol, those who download a file can then redistribute all or part of it to other BitTorrent users. This is particularly helpful for content that's in great demand. The more popular a file becomes, the more likely BitTorrent users are to download it from others in their IPS's network.  That allows them to avoid the most congested part of the Internet, which is the shared connection between their ISP's network and the rest of the Internet.

The new browser can work this magic only on Web pages and other content published as torrent files or BitTorrent Bundles. But Rob Velasquez, a BitTorrent Inc. product manager, says that change is a relatively small one. Websites would write and design their pages the same way as before; the only difference is in how they'd be served to the public. As with any torrent file, the creator of the site would "seed" the torrent from its computers, but as the pages became popular, they would increasingly be delivered from the browser cache in other Project Maelstrom users' computers.

The browser may be an easy sell to the more than 150 million BitTorrent users around the globe, but that's only part of the challenge for the company. The more difficult part is persuading more online publishers and content providers to create versions of their websites and services that are compatible with Project Maelstrom.

There, the company has to contend with BitTorrent's reputation as a tool for piracy. It's true that BitTorrent is favored by the illegal-downloading crowd; what's less well known is how widely the protocol is used for legitimate purposes. In addition to artists such as Thom Yorke and Eddy Izzard distributing works as BitTorrent Bundles, a number of major Web-based companies, including Facebook, Twitter and Amazon, use BitTorrent to deliver software and data, said Christian Averill, a company spokesman. Scientists and medical researchers, including those working on the Large Hadron Collider and the Human Genome Project, also use BitTorrent to circulate voluminous data sets, Averill said.

Like the protocol it's built on top of, the Project Maelstrom browser is a neutral technology, no better or worse at finding pirated works online than any other browser, he added.

BitTorrent Chief Executive Eric Klinker said the company is very clear in its opposition to copyright infringement, even as it acknowledges how its software can be (and routinely is) misused.

"We build technology that delivers the Internet very efficiently," Klinker said. Noting the company's work on BitTorrent Bundles, he said the conversation with content providers shouldn't be about piracy, but "about a new platform ... that will enable people to have more access to this great publishing platform called the Internet."

"That's always where we've been," he added. "We believe in the power of our technology to solve many of the problems of delivery."

Content providers may decide that the potential audience for a BitTorrent-powered browser is so big, it's in their interests to make legitimate copies of their material available through Project Maelstrom. But that's just one reason for them to support the project.

Velasquez and Klinker listed three other benefits of publishing Web pages as torrents. First, Project Maelstrom provides an alternative to expensive hosting services and content distribution networks. Rather than having to scale up server capacity to meet the demand for popular files, a publisher can rely on BitTorrent software to spread the distribution chores broadly.

Second, the current approach to delivering content online is poorly suited to the challenges posed as television broadcasters shift programs from the airwaves (and pay TV) to the Internet. That trend is in its infancy, but the recent moves by HBO and CBS have given it an air of inevitability. Putting all those broadcast shows online would require 66 exabytes (or about 70 billion gigabytes) of data every month, or about as much as the entire Internet carries now. For BitTorrent, which moves 3 to 4 exabytes of data a month, that's a manageable leap, Klinker said. But it's not for the conventional client-server model of content distribution, he added.

Third, BitTorrent's transmissions are encrypted, which makes them more resistant to censorship, throttling and other forms of discrimination by ISPs. That's an appealing feature for content providers concerned about potential interference by ISPs that are themselves content companies.

Although a torrent file can be changed after it's been published, Velasquez said Project Maelstrom may not be the best approach for sites that are constantly updated, such as a newspaper's. The initial converts are likely to be content owners with BitTorrent Bundles to distribute, he added, with other uses emerging over time as the technology spreads.

A preliminary version of the new browser is available by invitation only. Averill said the company converted the most popular Bundles into torrent-based websites to test with the new browser, along with some games, 3-D visualizations, apps and the like.

"One of our goals during this closed [trial] is to identify test publishers for websites and other services. So those will follow," Averill said. "We'll apply all we learn from the test group and proceed responsibly."

Healey is an editorial writer for The Times. Follow his intermittent Twitter feed: @jcahealey