[This article was first published in Crikey on Monday 5 January 2009, and the headline is theirs. Here it is for those folks too cheap-arsed to subscribe. I’ll re-post my other recent Crikey material soon.]
The biggest criticism of the Rudd government’s plan to centrally censor the internet — apart from it being ill-defined, secretive, a potential human rights abuse, a great way to screw up broadband speeds, poorly planned, way behind schedule and tackling the problem of child sexual abuse in completely the wrong way — is that it won’t work. As Crikey has reported several times before. None of the filters tested in the first half of 2008 could touch peer-to-peer (P2P) networks like BitTorrent, which is where The Bad Stuff lives.
Just before Christmas, Senator Conroy tackled that last bit by declaring in a single sentence on his new blog: “Technology that filters peer-to-peer and BitTorrent traffic does exist and it is anticipated that the effectiveness of this will be tested in the live pilot trial.” If so, it’s news to the ISPs who signed up. But then they haven’t been given official notification yet, and the trials were meant to start before Christmas. Ahem.
BitTorrent is easy to understand, provided you skip the brain-imploding technical details. Instead of everyone downloading the same big media file from a central server, causing congestion, the file is split up into lots of little pieces. As soon as you’ve download one random piece, your computer becomes a server, swapping the pieces you already have for the missing pieces downloaded by other users — your peers. Automatically. Eventually everyone gets all of the pieces, with the work shared amongst all the participants.
BitTorrent is incredibly efficient. As we reported in March, Norway’s national broadcaster NRK used BitTorrent to distribute a full HD TV program to 80,000 people for just US$350 in bandwidth and storage charges.
Yesterday [Sunday], Crikey showed NRK project manager Eirik Solheim reports of Conroy’s plan.
“Wow!” he said. “A minister that is actively working to limit your country’s ability to distribute information and compete globally… If he plans to block BitTorrent traffic in general that would be a serious limitation to people’s ability to distribute content, creativity, ideas and information.”
Sure, P2P has a bad rep. The Bad Guys use it to distribute illegal pornography, and ordinary folks use it to bypass the slow, old-fashioned distribution mechanisms of the music, TV and movie industries — committing copyright naughtiness along the way. But P2P also distributes open source software and other legitimate material.
As Solheim puts it, “Blocking BitTorrent because pirates also use it to distribute illegal content would be like blocking all roads because people drive too fast and criminals transfer illegal goods.”
Selectively filtering BitTorrent “sounds very difficult”, says Solheim. Indeed, all child pornographers need do is encrypt their files and distribute the passwords another way — just as they already do. The filter won’t know what’s in the files.
Solheim calls BitTorrent “a very robust and effective distribution method, especially good for TV stations with popular content.” With Australia’s broadband development already well behind the pace, we can’t afford to cripple an efficient distribution mechanism.