Pirate Bay decade: Fighting censorship, copyright monopolies bit by bit

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Ten years on, The Pirate Bay has made it clear that no laws in the world can shut down a service wanted by hundreds of millions of people. It will keep decentralizing to protect itself from legal assaults, says Swedish Pirate Party founder Rick Falkvinge.

The phenomenon of sharing culture and knowledge seems to swing in cycles between centralized and decentralized. The Pirate Bay appeared with little fanfare in the fall of 2003. At the time, BitTorrent was not the preferred sharing technology at all, and a Swedish think-tank named The Pirate Bureau wanted to try out the technology, as it showed promise by being decentralized.

While we would think that sharing activity would need to be decentralized by its nature, it turns out that this is rarely the case. When we were sharing culture and knowledge in our teens and before, that happened on cassette tapes. The cassette players of the day would even come with slots for two cassettes and a “copy A to B” button, having dedicated features to make it easy to share culture and knowledge between people.

As computers arrived, they too used the cassette tape early on to store culture, knowledge, and programs, so sharing carried over into this new world very easily.

Around the 1990s, phone-line modems became popular, and a proto-Internet of proto-websites – BBSes, bulletin board systems – flared up. Instead of connecting to the net and then being online with everybody at the same time, you would connect your computer to one BBS at a time over the phone line, and these BBSes would share files between them and make them available to their users.

Still, this was more convenient than going over to a friend’s and copying a cassette tape, so sharing culture and knowledge over BBSes quickly caught on. There would be centralized repositories from where you could download whatever was hot that day – mostly text files, games, and the occasional blocky, low-resolution pornography. (A BBS with half a gigabyte of hard drive space was enormous at the time.)

Fast forward to the deployment of the Internet in general, and Napster in particular. Where BBSes had held the entire catalog of stuff on their hard drives, the genius of Napster was to connect users’ hard drives to each other, rather than attempting to gather everything centrally.

The bet of Napster was that the record industry would see the profit opportunities, and make Napster part of the industry. The alternative would be to force sharing underground, fostering decentralization.

As Cory Doctorow says: “copying always becomes easier – at no time in the future will it be harder to share than it is right now”.

Napster was also a marvel in ease of use. Type the name of a song, listen to it almost instantly. You couldn’t beat that. For all the talk of peer-to-peer and technical architecture explaining Napster’s success, it was the simplicity of use that was its killer feature, not its underlying technical theory.

Now, as we know, the record industry chose madness over reason (and continues to do so), killing Napster.

In its wake, a somewhat decentralized protocol named DirectConnect appeared, one that made it possible for everybody to run their own Napster-like service. But the transfers were still quite inefficient – you had to find one specific person who had what you wanted, and then manufacture your own copy of the shared culture or knowledge from blueprints provided by that one person.

The BitTorrent technology, largely made popular by The Pirate Bay, improved on this in two aspects.

First, everybody would transfer to everybody. If you were looking for blueprints to manufacture your own copy of Game of Thrones, and 10,000 people were sharing those blueprints, you would get them from not one person, but get different pieces from thousands at once. It was vastly more efficient.

The second improvement was notable as it was not technical but legal. Where people had been indicted in the Napster and DirectConnect era for sharing thousands of blueprints to culture and knowledge, allowing others to manufacture their own copies using their own property, it was not possible to see what other blueprints somebody was sharing just because you were receiving parts of one specific item. This added a significant protection against prosecution for breaking the copyright monopoly.

But the real breakthrough of The Pirate Bay lay not in its technology, but in its defense of civil rights. When they were bullied by the copyright industry’s lawyers, the operators of The Pirate Bay actually talked back – and people loved them for it. They didn’t waste time being polite, either. “Fuck off” would be a very nice reply to a legal empty threat. Once they posted all the threats and their replies online, they were instant heroes in a generation of sharing.

What’s puzzling is that these copyright industry lawyers keep insisting that the exclusive rights – the monopolies – are “property”, when it’s clearly not so in law. You’d think the lawyers wouldn’t lie about what the law actually says. Yet, they insist on doing so, for mere PR purposes – trying to portray the monopoly as property, when in reality, it’s a monopoly that limits property rights.

The copyright industry wasted no time in pushing for censorship of The Pirate Bay, using every justification from child pornography (yes, they have consistently tried to associate the free sharing of culture and knowledge with raping children…) to global-level trade embargos.

In some countries, the copyright industry succeeded on paper in introducing such censorship, but censorship circumvention tools would appear almost instantly. Thus, The Pirate Bay bills itself as the world’s most resilient BitTorrent site – a hard-earned reputation it has every right to. It has fought censorship pretty much worldwide, doing the world a favor in teaching the general population how to evade governmental censorship.

It is clear and notable that The Pirate Bay does not evolve much. Technically, it pretty much remains the same site it was around 2006, which must be said to be unique among the world’s top-100 sites.

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