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This is how BitTorrent was born: file downloads at full speed

Bram Cohen is the founder, director, president and CEO of Chia Network, a company dedicated to blockchain and cryptocurrencies. Its coin was launched in 2021. And unlike Bitcoin and Ethereum, its mining depends on the amount of disk space we dedicate to it instead of the processing power. The company was founded in 2017 and is valued at $500 million. But Bram Cohen has a past. He is 46 years old today but at the age of 26 he created BitTorrent , a file exchange protocol that practically everyone knows despite the fact that social networks and streaming platforms have taken away its prominence

There is a dance of figures around the worldwide internet traffic, but the different approximations give us an idea of ​​the weight of BitTorrent in the current internet. According to a report published in March 2022 by Sandvine, a company that manages broadband, by type of content, file sharing ranks seventh, led by video (53.72% ), social networks (12.69%) and the Web (9.86%). File sharing drops to 3.74% of total internet traffic. However, if we stick to the traffic figures of data upload, BitTorrent is still the king, topping the list with 9.7% of the total. Followed by HTTP (9.05%), Google 88.02%), Facebook (5.77%) or WordPress (5.01%).

On the official page of BitTorrent, the company that manages the trademark, protocol and official P2P client of the same name, the names of Netflix, Facebook, Google, Twitter or Lionsgate as prominent clients that use this protocol to send and receive content. Other sources also speak of Wikipedia or Blizzard. And back in the day, Valve, the person in charge of Steam, used BitTorrent to manage your high volume of file transfers. However, BitTorrent was initially associated with downloading movies, music and video games without their authors' permission. Today, this use is still there despite the rise of services such as Netflix, HBO Max or Disney+. Or precisely because of the saturation of subscription platforms. But how were things when BitTorrent was released?

Interview with Bram Cohen in 2019. Source: Chia Network (Facebook)

Mathematics , puzzles and P2P

Reviewing the biography of Bram Cohen, father of the BitTorrent protocol, its first official client and founder of the company of the same name that today manages the brand, we can see that all the pieces fit together. Come on, it was practically inevitable that Cohen dedicated himself to creating a file exchange protocol that would speed up the process by downloading the file from several simultaneous sources. This was the basis on which Cohen created BitTorrent in 2001. But the idea came a little earlier, when he was working for MojoNation . But let's go by parts.

Bram Cohen was born in New York City on October 12, 1975. Specifically, on the Upper West Side. The son of a computer science teacher, he soon learned to operate computers. In Wikipedia it is said that he learned BASIC when he was 5 years old. Whether this is true or not, Cohen's love of mathematics led him to participate in the Mathematical Olympiads in the United States during his time in high school. We do not know in what position he was left. Since then he has continued to demonstrate his passion for mathematics and puzzles . However, although he began college at New York State in Buffalo, he did not finish it. In his place, he worked in different dotcoms of the time until he found MojoNation .

It is at MojoNation, or rather, at his parent company, Evil Geniuses for a Better Tomorrow, where he messes around with file encryption and distribution. Precisely, this company, founded by Jim McCoy, among other enthusiasts, has its own P2P client. And although it hasn't penetrated too much into the collective memory, this software introduced several new features that we are still talking about. To begin with, its file transport protocol used encryption based on public keys, nodes, point-to-point encryption and other elements that have been used later by the BitTorrent protocol itself. And by related technologies such as the blockchain that we talk about nonstop today due to cryptocurrencies and NFTs. Precisely, MojoNation also had its own digital currency. Many years before the arrival of tokens and cryptocurrencies.

I was saying that great ideas arose from MojoNation that we continue to apply to various technologies today. One of those great ideas was the creation of BitTorrent by Bram Cohen, then an employee of the startup Evil Geniuses for a Better Tomorrow, which was the owner of this P2P software. So, after some time there, in April 2001 he decided to establish himself at his own risk to create his own P2P software. First the protocol itself and then the first official client, with the same name, and programmed in Python.

The speed and popularity of BitTorrent

Although it was not the first of its kind, Napster was the application that revolutionized the way of exchanging files. It was the star P2P program. Although his life was rather short. It was launched in 1999. And while it wasn't perfect, it was the best we had back then. A varied catalog of songs, shared by the users themselves and a chat to talk while downloading the songs. Process that took its time with the connections of the time. And that was if the exchange was not cut off because the other person closed the program or the connection dropped. ADSL and fiber optics for all were far from being reached.

In the first decade of the 21st century and after the fall from grace of Napster for legal reasons, closing the platform in July 2001, a multitude of alternatives will arise. Names like WinMX, iMesh, Audiogalaxy or KaZaA remain in the memory of many. But they all had a drawback: the download was slow because it was done from user to user. Wouldn't it be better to receive a file from two or more sources simultaneously? This was the idea that Bram Cohen had during his time at Evil Geniuses for a Better Tomorrow and that he put into practice with BitTorrent . And of course, his popularity came right away. Fast downloads without cuts. Could you ask for more?

Actually yes. Although this P2P protocol caught on with the public, it had its drawbacks. There was no built-in search engine to find the files you were looking for. You had to get hold of a text file, with a .torrent extension, and from the information in that file, the download and upload of the file would start. But in 2005, one of the most popular BitTorrent clients, Vuze, introduced distributed tracking. In this way, BitTorrent clients could exchange the necessary data to share the files.

Over time BitTorrent clients would emerge with integrated search engine, magnet links, which avoid downloading .torrent files, the BitTorrent v2 protocol (May 2017) and multitude of clients such as uTorrent, which was acquired by the BitTorrent company itself, and others such as Transmission, Deluge, BitComet or qBittorrent. To this must be added the endless ecosystem of pages and forums dedicated to offering content for this P2P network.

The Legacy of BitTorrent

As I discussed earlier, although BitTorrentwas initially associated with downloading copyright-protected content, an inevitable association for all P2P technologies, over time, companies around the world realized the benefits of BitTorrent to send and receive large files. And safely, thanks to concepts such as network decentralization, encryption, information hashes, etc. Precisely, at the end of 2003, Bram Cohen himself worked at Valve to help in its digital distribution of content through the Steam gaming platform. The following year he would leave the company and create his own, BitTorrent, Inc. He would do it with his brother, Ross Cohen and others like Ashwin Navin .

At the end of 2017, the father of BitTorrent left his own company to follow the path of cryptocurrencies. At the beginning of this article I talked about Chia Network , his current company and professional project. An alternative to Bitcoin and Ethereum. Interestingly, both BitTorrent and cryptocurrencies have a lot in common. Without BitTorrent, blockchain technology would not have been possible. Without blockchain, we would not have cryptocurrencies.

Be that as it may, the BitTorrent protocol is still more alive than ever. It may have lost popularity to TikTok, Netflix or YouTube, but companies around the world still use it for their internal management of large files. Many of us continue to use this protocol to find discontinued content . There are even web browsers that support BitTorrent. And thanks to the WebRTC protocol, which owes a lot to BitTorrent, we can share large files from the browser with other people with free, legal and safe services like ShareDrop , FilePizza and similar.