BitTorrent, the peer to peer file sharing network, has gained a reputation for enabling the masses to share and distribute files. But when it comes to sharing copyrighted content, just 100 users are responsible for most of the content.
The findings, published by academic researchers in Spain, Germany and the U.S., contradict the popular assumption that file sharing hubs are a vast, unregulated Wild West of illegal trading. In fact, the researchers found that just 100 publishers were responsible for 67% of all the published content and 75% of the downloaded content. Furthermore, fully 30% of the content was offered by so-called “fake publishers” – media companies looking to poison the file sharing hubs, or malware authors pushing malicious downloads.
The research was presented in a paper, “Is Content Publishing in BitTorrent Altruistic or Profit-Driven” at CoNEXT 2010 in Philadelphia in December, 2010. The team of academics from the
Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, Technische Universitat Darmstadt in
Germany, and the University of Oregon in the U.S. studied 55,000 streams of published content shared by more than 35 million IP addresses. They found that sharing on top Torrent sites is far more concentrated than was previously thought, with a few scores of publishers, working through a short list of hosting providers, providing the bulk of legal and illegal content.
Malicious file downloads designed to compromise user machines and fake media files intended to frustrate piracy make up a healthy slice of all the download activity on the major torrent sites – around a quarter of all download activity, which translates into millions of downloaded files, the researchers said.
Of the slice of download activity from legitimate publishers (non-fake, non-malicious), the researchers identified two main sources: for-profit publishers who were interested in driving traffic to Web sites and so-called “altruistic” top publishers.
Sharing linked to for profit Web pages accounted for around 30% of the content and 40% of the downloading activity in BitTorrent. The remainder of content – around 33% of the published content and 25% of the downloads were attributable to so-called “altruistic” top publishers.
The researchers said that the motivations of top publishers was easy to determine by studying their activity on the Torrent sites. Fake publishers and for profit publishers tended to publish large amounts of content and often used scores of different account names that were linked to the same IP address. But they rarely downloaded content from other BitTorrent seeds. They also preferred a short list of ISPs and premium hosting services from providers like UK-based OVH – the top choice for between 13% and 25% of the top publishers, according to the paper.
In contrast, altruistic top publishers typically offered a small number of files, while downloading and seeding content in equal measure. They also tended to connect from a variety of lower cost broadband connections, hosted by firms like Comcast.
Download the paper here. (PDF)