HBO Attacking BitTorrent

HBO is actively poisoning the BitTorrent downloads of the new show Rome. In addition to an older tactic of offering bogus downloads that never complete, HBO is now obstructing the downloads offered by other people. BitTorrent downloads are peer-to-peer, but the peers are introduced to each other by a tracker (“you’re looking for Rome Season 1 Episode 2, talk to”). HBO runs peers that tell the tracker they have all the chunks of the show, but then send garbage data when a downloader requests a chunk. The downloading client can detect that it’s garbage and will try another peer for the chunk, but the end result is that it takes much much longer to download shows. This isn’t HBO’s first move to stop online distribution (see this story of a guy who received a “you’re busted” letter from HBO) but it’s the most active effort I’ve heard about. It’s also very effective–to test this, I randomly selected a healthy torrent for the 2nd episode of Rome, and after hundreds of failed chunks the download stalled at around 30%.

Naturally the downloaders are fighting back. Systems like Peer Guardian let you manage blacklists of bogus peers. It will also autodetect new bogus peers. At the end of this post I’ve included one such list of known-bad peers, found on a discussion of a failing Rome download. There are a lot of IPs involved in this! You’ll see companies like Media Sentry who are agents for the media companies in tracking down and stopping illegal filesharing activity, as well as a large number identified just as HBO.

PeerGuardian is only the start. I think the approach to poison peers will be the same as to spamming mail relays. We’ll see distributed blacklists with a reputation system managing the blacklists. It’s beginning to emerge informally. The fact that bogus fragments are so easily detected (every fragment has a guaranteed-correct checksum provided by the person who originally seeded it) means that there’s no messy Bayesian spam detection algorithms or grayboxes. If you send me a bogus fragment, you’re obviously evil. The problem then becomes determining which reports of poison peers are bogus. Any success HBO has in the download wars will be shortlived, as I expect to see software implementing this kind of distributed automatic blacklisting soon.