Home > Articles > Political implications of BitTorrent

Political implications of BitTorrent

BitTorrent is an inherently political technology which embodies decentralized political order. Additionally, it broadens the definition of art. Despite the negative side effects of the technology, BitTorrent is worth pursuing.

What does it mean to say that a technology is political? Winner outlines two possibilities:

I…offer…two ways in which artifacts can contain political properties. First are instances in which the invention, design, or arrangement of a specific technical device or system becomes a way of settling an issue in a particular community. Second are cases of what can be called inherently political technologies, man-made systems that appear to require, or to be strongly compatible with, particular kinds of political relationships.…By ”politics,” I mean arrangements of power and authority in human associations as well as the activities that take place within those arrangements.

What does it mean to say that a technology embodies decentralized political order? Applying Winner’s thought, such a technology would either appear to require or be strongly compatible with a kind of arrangement of power and authority with regard to human associations and activities within such associations. Inasmuch as the information age has made information power, to say that a technology is strongly compatible with decentralized political relationships means that the technology decentralizes control of information. We would expect such technologies to be dangerous to centralized power structures.

BitTorrent decentralizes control of information, and thereby embodies decentralized political order. Each person in the swarm has the power to download the information, and each person in the swarm also has the responsibility to upload the information to their peers. In fact, with the usage of distributed hash table technology, even a centralized tracker is unnecessary; peers can coordinate file transfer themselves without the need for a tracker (BitTorrent.org).

Decentralization of information control and access is the natural end of BitTorrent. Imagine that BitTorrent exists in some centralized power structure where only one torrent tracker exists. In order for some authoritarian, centralized power to keep said power, it would have to be able to keep control over the way that BitTorrent is used. And for a time, that central power could control BitTorrent. But starting a new tracker is so easy that controlling such action over a long period of time would be almost impossible. To prevent people from starting new trackers and attracting users away from the Official TrackerTM would require coercion on a scale that is hard to imagine, let alone implement.

Furthermore, BitTorrent is dangerous to centralized power structures. Look at the example of music. Record labels are a powerful, centralized entity in the realm of music. If BitTorrent is a threat to centralized power, then we should expect to see record labels seeking to control BitTorrent. The Recording Industry Association of America (an organization made of record labels/distributors) seeks to exercise control over the ways in which people use BitTorrent. The RIAA targets both users and trackers, attempting to get such high punishments as to scare people away from using BitTorrent for sharing music.

Consider another example of a centralized power structure: the People’s Republic of China. China censors much of the internet and has started to censor BitTorrent websites (Van der Sar). These two examples of centralized powers fighting to control BitTorrent provide a compelling argument that there is something about BitTorrent which encourages decentralization of power.

Another way that BitTorrent decentralizes power is in the way that people discover content. Again, consider the example of music. In the past, certain people have had much more power over the sharing of music than others; radio DJ’s, journalists, and the like were able to exert power over the music people listen to. Before the advent of peer-to-peer technology, a non-DJ’s ability to share music with others was limited to those physically/geographically nearby. Peer-to-peer technology allows for music sharing to occur through the internet; a user can now share her favorite music with anyone (Franchini). BitTorrent enables users to share not only the knowledge of some song or artist, but the very music itself.

Perhaps the most beneficial societal contribution offered by BitTorrent is the decentralization of content distribution. It allows creation and distribution of art to happen without the support of powerful backers. Before BitTorrent, distributing a television show required some power over the broadcasters. Even in the internet age, the bandwidth costs of distributing a “television” show can be very expensive. The unique opportunity afforded by BitTorrent is to share the load of distributing the content among a large “swarm” of peers. Because it drives distribution costs down, BitTorrent liberates content creators from distributors; they can distribute their own content.

It also changes the ways in which users support their favorite artists. In a world overwhelmed with file sharing, supporting an artist has become less about buying the artist’s physical records/CD’s and more about buying band merchandise and tickets to concerts (Franchini). This change in artists’ revenue models from being primarily based on selling albums to being based on selling concert tickets and merchandise is also recognized by the artists themselves. Winston Marshall, the guitarist for Mumford & Sons, says that “Music is changing.…We look at our albums as…adverts for our live shows” (Stern).

Combining these effects, BitTorrent decreases the distance between content creators and content consumers, thereby encouraging more people to become content creators. Consumers no longer must go through a middle man to access their favorite creators’ work. They also take an active role in the re-creation of said work. As a result, consumers develop more direct relationships with the creators of content they like. Finally, because distribution costs are lower, consumers are more likely to become creators, and they will not have to seek the help of powerful distribution/broadcasting middle men. BitTorrent removes the necessity for a powerful middle man.

A counter-argument to the claim that BitTorrent embodies decentralizes power is that certain players in the BitTorrent ecosystem possess more power than others. The Pirate Bay, for instance, is a huge tracker which has lots of power. However, the existence of powerful players within a system does not imply a lack of decentralization of power. Users can still choose whether to use the mega-websites or the smaller ones. An abundance of torrent websites still exist and have power. This means that even though some are more powerful than others, power is largely decentralized in the BitTorrent ecosystem.

This decentralization of power is a good thing. Distributed power is inherently good in a society which values not being dominated by another person. If power is centralized, then the entity with the power is able to dominate whomever they so desire. American society values not being dominated, so this decentralization of power brought about by BitTorrent is good for society.

Another effect of BitTorrent (distinct from the decentralization of power) is that it changes what the word “art” means. Rodriguez-Ferrandiz dicsusses the effect that digital copies have on art as a whole in an abstract sense. In essence, the importance of the “original” work becomes less important. Possessing the original version of a song does not matter all that much when every copy of a song is perfect. In that BitTorrent makes the recreation of art extremely inexpensive and completely accurate, the quality and accessibility of copies of individual works of art mean that having the original is not significantly better than having a copy for most individuals.

Rodriguez-Ferrandiz specifically writes of photography, noting that it has caused “the focus of interest” to switch “from the work as a singularity that physically retains the creator’s touch to a vision of the work as a multipliable and liberated piece which removes distinctions between original and copy”. An earlier author, Benjamin, who is cited by Rodriguez-Ferrandiz refers to the distinction between original and copy as the “aura.” What of digital art, then, for which there is no difference between originals and copies? Rodriguez-Ferrandiz argues that a “paradoxical aura” exists for such art. Because the art is not defined by the way that it is represented in binary on a hard disk, it “transcends physical form” and becomes “immortal.” Though BitTorrent does not qualitatively change this trend or contribute to it in a novel way, it does offer a quantitatively larger realization of this immortality by making the reproduction of digital art far easier.

This change in the meaning of art is a good thing. It broadens art to include digital arts, giving artists a new medium for creativity. In American society, creativity is valued, so this change is good for society.

Of course, the technology is not without its drawbacks. Nothing inherent to the protocol stops its use from including mass distribution of child pornography or other unquestionably bad things. The entire idea of decentralized control is antithetical to the censorship of BitTorrent as a medium (whether or not the censorship is of things society generally agrees are bad). The government will not be able to stop the spread of child pornography through BitTorrent.

This inability to censor terrible things is not a reason to stop usage of BitTorrent technologies. First, this problem is not unique to BitTorrent. Many technologies make spreading morally repulsive content much easier (e.g. the internet, books, compact disks, pencils). Second, BitTorrent requires a large swarm of users for effectiveness. To say that certain things are generally agreed upon to be unacceptable in a society implies that the number of people who will participate in such behavior is low. Thus, BitTorrent is a bad fit for child pornographers and sharers of other repulsive content.

BitTorrent embodies decentralized political order. It broadens the definition of art. Because these are both good things, BitTorrent is a technology that is worth pursuing despite its drawbacks.

Works cited

BitTorrent.org. “BEP 5: DHT Protocol.” Link

Van der Sar, Ernesto. “China Hijacks Popular BitTorrent Sites.” TorrentFreak. 8 Nov 2008.

Rodriguez-Ferrandiz, Raul. “Benjamin, BitTorrent, bootlegs: auratic piracy cultures?.” International journal of communication.

Stern, Marlow. “Mumford & Sons Diss Jay Zs Tidal.” The Daily Best. 12 April 2015.

Winner, Langdon. “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” Daedalus, Vol. 109, No. 1, Modern Technology: Problem or Opportunity? (Winter, 1980), pp. 121-136.