The Birth and Death of the Second Golden Age of Piracy in Northern Europe

I was there when they came for The Pirate Bay. Specifically, I was outside the courtroom for the trial, but also there for the protests before, during, and after the trial. In hindsight, the trial against TPB clearly marked the beginning of the end of an era on the Internet, the one I grew up in. Though, like in most times, that was not obvious to us who lived it. In a sense, the era still lives in a stumbling, zombified form, as can be seen by going to one of TPB's porn-and-malware-laden mirrors.

File sharing has of course existed for as long as we have had computers. It is a base economic fact that a computer at its core is a copying machine. Therefore, the economic law of marginal cost kicks in; as soon as you have a digital copy of a movie or some computer software, producing more of it is virtually free. Once computers became sufficiently ubiquitous, mass piracy was more or less inevitable. The first golden age of piracy was offline, driven by easy access to floppies and cassette tapes. However, in order to get really big, it needed an open and unregulated network like the Internet. At that point, piracy became a crucial internal contradiction of what could today be called content capitalism, and one that I believe seriously threatened its existence. This was the second golden age of piracy.

Before moving on, I want to point out that I am writing about the situation in the “Western mainstream”. To qualify that further, I can speak with some confidence about Northern Europe plus France and Germany, and decreased accuracy as the situation becomes less similar. The US and Canada are probably identical, but the situation is most definitely different in the Latin Americas, East Asia, and Africa, based on what I have heard.

The Pirate Bay (TPB) and the other BitTorrent trackers were the peak of pirate technology. There were other protocols and applications, some with very interesting properties in theory, but BitTorrent was fast, easy, and interacted well with the Web, Internet's most popular protocol. It also simultaneously enabled private and niche file sharing like OiNK's Pink Palace (music), Karagarga (Ebooks), and TVTorrents (guess), and open trackers like TPB.

Later, public trackers like TPB replaced the actual tracking mechanism with fully peer-to-peer transfers that only contained an initial key to the download stored in the link itself, rather than a full description of its contents. This would effectively make a BitTorrent download autonomous from any centralised infrastructure. However, the key part of the function performed of a tracker was clearly not the tracking of downloaders and uploaders, but rather the metadata. The indexing of contents, comments, rating functionality, and so on. Ironically, BitTorrent's main weakness was not the protocol itself, but its reliance on Web technology, which is heavily centralised in nature. And any central node large enough to be useful to anyone is also large enough to take down.

This problem was rather misunderstood at the time. During the trials, I remember someone seemingly important (we knew no names and no faces of anyone involved with anything) telling us who waited outside of the courtroom that this was not over. We had only scratched the surface of what consistent hashing and DHTs (the distributed technology powering the recently available trackerless torrents) could do.

That was ten years ago. I have still not seen a new generation of file sharing software, neither using DHTs nor any other technology. File sharing stagnated there, despite advances in distributed systems and algorithms that it could have benefited from. The only attempt I have seen was Popcorn Time, a pirate Netflix work-alike that was quickly taken down by legal measures. Its centralised architecture made it an easy target.

In hindsight, the trials against The Pirate Bay and the other trackers were the stick. The carrots were cheap streaming services like Spotify and Netflix. Together with the establishment of the Web as the Internet proper, Google as the front page of the web, and Facebook and Twitter for communication they established complete corporate domination of the vacuum created from the rupture of the first IT bubble in the 90's. Finally, capital had managed to fully colonise the Internet. Of course, these are different capital formations with widely different interests. Google is one of the biggest pirates on Earth and certainly at some point did undermine content capital, but bailing it out and making it mostly legitimate was after all a relatively cheap price to pay for maintaining control.

Looking back on this recuperation, what stands out to me is the anti-capitalist reflexes of ordinary people. The massive litigation against file sharing sites were of course not the first choice of the established order, and certainly not flat-rate streaming services either. They were necessary because by and large, in the fight between the scrappy hackers who clearly made no money off of their enterprise to distribute ludicrously overpriced cultural objects for free, and what was clearly Big Content Industry rolling over them with all the might of the State, most sane people sided with the former.

These sensibilities have not gone away. People still use pirate streaming services, download TV shows that are unavailable in their countries, and illicitly share “family” accounts on streaming services with their friends. They are just not lead by a technological vanguard helping them to do so, and are therefore vastly less efficient than they were before. This means that we are in a piracy dark age, not an apocalypse.

I hope to describe how I think we can get out of it in a future post.