interview


Peer pressure

eric-klinker

There is no organisation in the world that, relative to its size, holds as much sway over the internet at BitTorrent Inc, the company that curates the globally used peer-to-peer files sharing platform. The protocol, invented by Bram Cohen in 2001, enables users to download large files a tiny piece at a time from a large swarm of users rather than from a single server, greatly speeding up the process, while building in redundancy.

Estimates for how much of the world’s internet traffic BitTorrent actually accounts for vary from between 27 per cent and 55 per cent, depending on geographic location, but at CES 2011, Eric Klinker, the CEO of BitTorrent, revealed that the protocol has over 100 million monthly active users, double the combined figures of the hugely popular online US streaming services Hulu and Netflix.  Yet with just 75 employees, the ratio of global users to engineers at the company is, it’s safe to say, off the scale.

In many senses then there’s a love/hate relationship between BitTorrent and the carriers – it swamps their networks, but at the same time is a major driver of uptake for their services and drives demand for higher speed, and higher cost, plans.

It’s a dichotomy that Klinker agrees with. “And it’s not an old relationship either. I’ve been with BitTorrent for four years and we’ve been working with ISPs for all four years,” he says.

The first major issues came to a head in 2007 when Comcast, the US cable operator, was revealed to have throttled UDP-based P2P traffic on its network. It eventually resulted in class action suits from angry customers and the fallout raised the profile of the issue of net neutrality.

The response from BitTorrent though was not through recourse to the courts or banging of the political drums – it was technological. “There’s no regulatory solution to these problems,” Klinker says. “The internet is a collection of technologies – and we’re a technology company. So we always approach problems, and even this problem, as what do we use in our technology quiver that could solve this?”

The internet is a collection of technologies – and we’re a technology company. So we always approach problems as, what do we use in our technology quiver that could solve this?

The result was that BitTorrent rebuilt its UDP protocol as UTP. Klinker explains: “The technology is designed to shape itself in peak hours. If there’s congestion on the network, it’s very good at sensing it. It senses it on any given round trip; it senses it faster than the DPI gear than your ISP is probably using. This technology is self regulating, and would ramp BitTorrent traffic down during those times and then quickly ramp it back up if capacity is available.”

However, Klinker says that the intention isn’t to enable peer-to-peer users to evade being throttled, but to help ease congestion for operators and ensure consistent speeds across the network. “This is a huge benefit to ISPs. It instantaneously gives them access to capacity that they’re previously reserving. If the pipe has a very large percentage of traffic on UTP, they can fill that pipe a lot fuller than before – as the UTP will clip itself,” says Klinker. “I usually present a picture of this where you can very clearly see UTP getting out of the way of other traffic. So a capacity planner inside your ISP, can run the pipes at 100 per cent capacity and this does not cause performance problems if there’s a significant percentage of UTP traffic.”

Klinker’s call to ISPs is that they should not fear BitTorrent, but embrace it. “The easy message to the ISP is that we’ve reinvented this protocol, it’s of great benefit to you; you should be incentivising users to use it. It is very network friendly, and represents an instance where applications, user and network provider all work together to solve the problem.”

Klinker believes that it’s a matter of treating the network with respect. “As provider challenges continue to mount they can’t solve the problems on their own – they really need to educate application providers – people that are writing iPhone applications for example, to keep the network in mind, and build applications that are friendly to the network – that don’t signal as much.”

Klinker admits that the biggest challenge that BitTorrent as a company has to deal with though is not technological, but one of PR and marketing. After all, the very name BitTorrent is now intrinsically linked in people’s minds with piracy. “I think it’s the biggest marketing challenge that we have. At the end of the day, it’s a technology, and clearly copyright infringement is a significant challenge”. In fact, Klinker admits its own protocol is being used against it. “People steal our software as well, and use our software to pirate versions of our software.

“The technology isn’t the challenge; it’s the user behaviour.  Holding the ISP responsible for copyright infringement [or] the operating system makers, [or] the web browser… that isn’t where the problem lies. It’s the people that publish it, make it available and then consume it.  It’s a very big challenge and the law is very clear. But that has not made the problem go away, for sure.”

While it may be associated with the shady side of the internet, Klinker points out that BitTorrent succeeds on the strength of its technology and that it’s a fantastic distribution method for legal content.

“BitTorrent is a fundamental technology that’s very good at moving large files. This technology is being applied to the problem of personal content sharing. And we’re creating a platform where it’s very easy for me or anybody as a content creator to easily distribute content among their friends and family.”

He has doubts about the wisdom of legislation that forces ISPs to impose restrictions on its customers, such as the ‘three strikes’ rule. “I think there’s a big question around those for sure. Will they bring people to a position where it will make people buy more content? I don’t think there’s ever been a connection made between a three strikes policy at the ISP level and more media being purchased. The trends of media consumption on the internet are probably bigger than these policies to change that behaviour.”

From his perspective, Klinker believes that rather than throttling P2P, operators need to focus on how to avoid becoming mere commodities, with value being extracted away from the network.  However, from his own experience he warns against the carriers taking the ‘walled garden’ approach and trying to offer unique content and experiences.  “I grew up early in my career in one of the first ISPs, ‘Excite@Home’. What proved to be the case was that the pipe to the internet was valuable and the walled garden… well… every walled garden will fail. The internet is open, and open will win. Apple will learn this lesson as well. And that’s what consumers ultimately want.”

Every walled garden will fail. The internet is open, and open will win. Apple will learn this lesson as well. And that’s what consumers ultimately want.

A concept increasingly growing in weight is that the large OTT companies, such as the Google and Facebook, should contribute in some form to the costs of the networks that they are soaking up, but Klinker is unsure of the practicalities of this.

“I think … [it’s] going to be a very difficult thing to put in place. It would involve a rather high stakes game of chicken, where in order to get YouTube to pay you’re going to have to stop providing YouTube, and that’s going to create problems of another kind for a time – from customers, or from regulators.”

Klinker also points out the in the cable TV industry the very opposite is happening, where the networks pay the content providers for access to their programmes. “Why would it apply differently in broadband? In fact, why shouldn’t the operators pay the content makers?”

While there’s no sign that BitTorrent’s technology is going to do anything but grow in terms of popularity the company is not resting on its laurels. Klinker says that after redefining how files on the internet are downloaded, the next stage is a live streaming service that will use peer-to-peer technology to deliver the same efficiency benefits.

“What we’ve been working on for about a year is a live protocol that will deliver many of the same benefits that BitTorrent does today. It’s really peer based – no server required. A single cell phone can serve an audience of millions, with no infrastructure and with less than five seconds of latency. So that’s a protocol that we’re implementing right now for linear television and live events. And expect that to be pretty interesting.”

It’s not yet branded and is currently as Alpha stage, but Klinker says that the industry can expect an announcement at CES 2012.

Clearly then, BitTorrent is showing no sign of slowing down, and the plan is to continue to innovate, drive technology forward, and stretch the talents of the broadband providers round the world. As Klinker assures us, “We will lead trends that will challenge operators and media providers for a while to come.”

Eric Klinker will be speaking in the Broadband Home stream at the Broadband World Forum, taking place on the 27-29 September 2011 at the CNIT, La Defense, Paris, France.

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