ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

In the last three or four years while you've been going about your normal life, a revolution has stormed across the Internet. Data is whipping around faster than ever, making it easier for people to share movies, music, games, anything. This was sparked in large part by one elegant trick of programming, an advanced way of compressing data and shooting it over the Web.

It's called BitTorrent, named for the deluge, or torrent of bits, that flow across the Internet. It is a rethinking of the basic philosophy of file transfers. And that is both its strength and the thing that puts it at odds with Hollywood and big Internet service providers.

First, let's explain what BitTorrent really is and how it works. To help me with this I've asked NPR's digital media guru Andy Carvin to join me in the studio. Hey, Andy.

ANDY CARVIN: Hey, how's it going, Andrea?

SEABROOK: Let's start with how files used to be transferred across the Internet. It used to be sort of, like, I have something you want so you reach across the Internet and get a copy of it for me.

(Soundbite of beeping)

CARVIN: Something like that.

SEABROOK: Okay. But in general, it's sort of a linear...

CARVIN: It's a linear, it has a beginning, middle and end. It just shoots out there, like, going down the highway.

SEABROOK: Now, with BitTorrent and with programs like it, it might sound more like bees.

(Soundbite of bees buzzing)

CARVIN: Yeah, that buzzing sound you've heard is essentially a swarm. It's not one single entity but an ecosystem working together. When you've got BitTorrent what you're actually doing is communicating with tons and tons of computers all over the place. There are actually people who have the BitTorrent software installed on their computer.

SEABROOK: Um-hum.

CARVIN: And so when you go and request something rather than just pointing to a single source and saying, send it to me, you're calling out to the entire system. And everyone's who got a bit of it is able to send it to you. So the work gets spread around it eventually assembles onto your computer.

SEABROOK: Okay. So, let's do this an example. Let's say you want to download your favorite song, and your favorite song is:

(Soundbite of song "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da")

Mr. PAUL McCARTNEY (The Beatles): (Singing) Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, life goes on, brah...

SEABROOK: Okay, so you have BitTorrent on your computer. You click get me "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da." What does BitTorrent do?

CARVIN: It may be on 100 other people's computer somewhere on the Internet. And so when you ask for it, it's going to go and request little bits of the song from each of them because it doesn't want to take all the time and the capacity to download the entire thing from one person.

So, let's say your computer has Ob-La-Di...

(Soundbite of song "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da")

Mr. McCARTNEY: (Singing) Ob-La-Di...

CARVIN: ...and then another computer somewhere halfway around the world's got Ob-La-Da...

(Soundbite of song "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da")

Mr. McCARTNEY: (Singing) Ob-La-Da...

CARVIN: ...and then somewhere else on the world, someone's got the "life goes on"...

(Soundbite of song "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da")

Mr. McCARTNEY: (Singing) ...life goes on, brah...

CARVIN: So rather than having one of those people send you the entire copy, it just takes that little bit and pulls it all together when it gets to your end.

(Soundbite of beeping)

(Soundbite of song "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da")

Mr. McCARTNEY: (Singing) ...life goes on, brah, la, la, la, la, life goes on.

CARVIN: So no one's computers get strained in the process but you still get what you're looking for.

(Soundbite of song "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da")

Mr. McCARTNEY: (Singing) Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.

CARVIN: You're now part of the same network. So now, if Joe Schmoe halfway around the world is also looking for "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," you are now a source for bits of it as well. So it's a kind of system where if you're going to request stuff you have to give back to it as well and it's all done automatically.

SEABROOK: NPR digital media guru, Andy Carvin, thanks for coming in.

CARVIN: My pleasure. Thanks a lot, Andrea.

Now, that last fact Andy mentioned, that in order for the BitTorrent system to work well, users have to receive and give information, download and upload, has really changed the way normal people use the Internet. Before people like you and I were far more likely to just go and get what we wanted than to actually give anything to others.

Consequently, Internet service providers or ISPs built their networks and sold Internet connections based on this pattern: they gave you a line with enough bandwidth for you to download information really quickly, but then gave you much less bandwidth to upload.

Most people didn't really notice this until they started using BitTorrent.

Mr. ASHWIN NAVIN (CEO, BitTorrent, Inc.): The world has changed dramatically in 15 years.

SEABROOK: This is Ashwin Navin, the CEO of BitTorrent, Inc., which distributes the software. I sat down with him on a recent trip to San Francisco.

Mr. NAVIN: Fifteen years ago it would be safe to say that 99 percent of the entertainment, the content, the information that we consume came from a handful of media companies. And they had a very tight linkage or relationship to distributors and everything was very closely held.

SEABROOK: Today, says Navin, there is a whole new universe of Internet services based on the idea that people share as much information as they consume. Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, MySpace.

Mr. NAVIN: All of these applications are built on the idea that people can participate, that they're encouraged to participate. When they do participate it makes the world a better place. When we then turn around and say that we only want you to upload a tenth of the amount of information that you consume, we're trying to push the world back 15 years ago to when people were just receptacles for information.

And that would be fighting a trend that I don't think is possible to fight.

SEABROOK: Some Internet service providers adapted, especially those that could upgrade their networks clearly. But one ISP in particular tried instead to limit the amount of bandwidth BitTorrent could use on its network - Comcast.

It embarked on a program of so-called traffic shaping, or scanning its network for BitTorrent files and then slowing them down. This led some users to complain to the FCC and argue that Comcast was engaging in a kind of data censorship.

Now, just this past Thursday BitTorrent, Inc. and Comcast came to an agreement. The ISP announced it will stop targeting BitTorrent files. But that's just one ISP. Nate Anderson is an editor at the cyber news site, Ars Technica. He says Internet providers across the globe are still thinking the old way about BitTorrent, or peer-to-peer traffic.

Mr. NATE ANDERSON (Editor, Ars Technica): Canada and other places are already filtering peer-to-peer on a discriminatory basis. So this is an issue that while it may sort of settled in the U.S. for now is actually a big deal in many other countries.

SEABROOK: And there's another problem looming over BitTorrent and ISPs, says Anderson. Hollywood and other big-money entertainment producers are demanding that the new order on the Internet built on the idea of sharing, police itself for illegal copies of music and movies. The demand not only runs counter to how the net works these days, but it springs from what some consider an old fashioned philosophy about the ownership of information.

In the modern culture of BitTorrent, YouTube and so on, no one user owns anything, and everyone can have a copy of whatever they want. This, of course, doesn't exactly jibe with the American legal system, which is based on the idea of ownership. So, who will adapt to whom? That's the big picture to be watching as two cultures duke it out over the Internet.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: The BitTorrent story continues after the break with the brains behind the code.

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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