Will BitTorrent Sites Become Obsolete?

Opinion

Researchers from several Universities are currently working on a search technology that could make BitTorrent sites obsolete. While the idea of a completely decentralized filesharing network is not new, there are some downsides that are often overlooked.

BitTorrent may be decentralized, but a large part of the BitTorrent community still relies on centralized websites and trackers. These trackers and torrent sites are considered to be the Achilles heel of the BitTorrent hydra.

At the moment, the top three BitTorrent sites host are handling the majority of all BitTorrent users, and even worse, The Pirate Bay tracks well over 50% of all public torrent files. BitTorrent has welcomed many new users over the past three years, and we are now in the uncomfortable situation where the downtime of one of the larger sites may cause problem for the others, simply because they can’t handle the traffic.

This is exactly what happened last month when Mininova was offline for a day due to a hardware problem. Mininova has well over three million visitors a day, these people went to other sites while Mininova was down, and this increase in traffic got some sites in serious trouble. The question is: Is there an alternative?

The answer to this question is yes and no. A solution to the tracker problem that works pretty well is DHT, or “trackerless torrents”. With DHT you can still connect to other people who are downloading the same file, even when the tracker for that torent is not working properly. Thanks to DHT, people were able to download torrents that were tracked by Demonoid.com, up to six months after the tracker went down. The downside of DHT (the mainline version) is that not all clients support it, and that it is maintained by one company, BitTorrent Inc.

Replacing BitTorrent sites is even more complex. How do you find torrents when there are no BitTorrent search engines that store them? A possible solution to this problem comes from researchers of Cornell University, who developed an Azureus plugin named Cubit. The Cubit plugin allows you to find torrents, and doesn’t require a centralized server as BitTorrent sites do. You basically search for torrent files among other peers, similar to Kazaa and Limewire. An interesting concept, but unfortunately, this also has a lot of downsides.

Cubit opens the gates for floods of spam, because it misses one key feature: moderation. Since BitTorrent has become so popular, anti-piracy organizations like MediaDefender and BayTSP are constantly uploading fake files, and scammers are uploading malware and spyware, often wrapped in fake media players.

To most people is goes unnoticed, but sites like Mininova and The Pirate Bay have a dedicated team of moderators that remove hundreds of fake and scammy torrents a day. Together these moderators remove more than a thousand torrents per site, day in and day out. In addition, most BitTorrent sites also use IP-filters to prevent known scammers and anti-piracy outfits from uploading their content again.

So, for now, Cubit is not yet going to replace BitTorrent sites, as they need to address the lack of moderation first. Tribler, another application that is developing a BitTorrent site replacement that seems to be far ahead of Cubit, already implemented such moderation features and spam filtering. Branded as the “social” BitTorrent client, is also has community features that many people appreciate.

In sum, I think it is safe to conclude that BitTorrent as it is has some weak spots that could cause problems in the future. The Pirate Bay, Mininova and isoHunt – the top three BitTorrent sites – are all involved in a court case. Depending on the outcome of these cases, the need for alternative search technologies may become more apparent. For now, however, we need BitTorrent sites, and in particular their moderators.

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