Bram Cohen's programming hobby is now Hollywood's nightmare. His creation, BitTorrent, now dominates the world of online file-trading and has created a flood of copyright concerns.
Mr. Cohen, who distances himself from misuses of his invention, gave BitTorrent one big difference from typical peer-to-peer programs: As more people swap data, the speeds increase. Users download torrent files, which are posted on numerous websites and chat rooms, pointing to others who have the desired file, then the software grabs bits and pieces from different people.
This system is great for people who want to send large files, such as bulky open-source software, to many computers without bearing all the bandwidth costs. But it also provides a unique way to pirate TV shows, movies, video games, and other copyrighted content.
Large video files are still a bigger hassle to trade than ordinary MP3 files, but BitTorrent makes the task a bit simpler. Since the technology also makes sure the right data downloads, decoy files sent by anti-piracy groups can't get through.
Major movie studios started suing BitTorrent users who allegedly distribute unauthorized copies of movies late last year. The anti-piracy campaign faces a big challenge, in that many such computer servers are offshore and beyond the reach of U.S. copyright law. While Mr. Cohen says this was not his intent, BitTorrent may create a legal torrent this year.
Spammers may be retreating from the world's inboxes. America Online, the world's largest internet service provider, says the volume of incoming junk mail fell in 2004 by nearly 500,000 messages a day between last November and a year before. Also, the number of spam complaints from members dropped more than 75 percent. (The service still receives about 2.2 million spam reports daily.)
AOL listed "Vioxx" as last year's most popular spam keyword, but said that junk messages are less and less about pitching products than pulling a con, such as stock swindles and attempts to coax away credit card numbers. Even porn spam has dropped.
Credit may go to the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (CAN-SPAM) Act, which President Bush signed in late 2003. The law penalizes e-mail marketers who do not let recipients opt out of future mailings. Yahoo, Microsoft, EarthLink, and AOL have filed several lawsuits that target spammers who hawk pornography, prescription drugs, get-rich schemes, and other questionable offers.
AOL reported that spam levels fell off briefly in 2003 before rising again, but the company claims that the current drop-off is consistent enough to be sustainable.
Bits & Megabytes
· TiVo last week launched its long-awaited TiVoToGo feature, which lets users transfer some recorded shows to their PCs. Users must register both their digital recorder and their computer to the same account, and TiVo threatens to eject those who send their recordings over the internet.
· Americans spent $8.8 billion online during the last Christmas shopping season, boosting e-commerce sales by 24 percent from 2003, according to Verisign. Customers spent an average of $145 per transaction.
· A federal appeals court on Dec. 28 upheld a previous ruling that limits the ability of states to regulate internet-based phone services. The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission argued it should be able to govern voice-over-IP providers as it does traditional phone companies, but was rejected. The decision left open the question of whether states may tax internet phone businesses.
· Yahoo last month added traffic reports, road conditions, and weather advisories to its popular maps and driving directions area, using data derived from police scanners, traffic cameras, and other sources. Users can layer traffic information on top of maps and estimate travel time based on road conditions. Yahoo, which claims online map usage grew 60 percent over the last two years, hopes the new features will make the site more appealing.