How BitTorrent Rewrote The Rules Of The Internet

How do you re-write the rules of the Internet? By changing its protocols.

How BitTorrent Rewrote The Rules Of The Internet
[Image: Flickr user followtheseinstructions]

Back in 2011, file sharing protocol BitTorrent accounted for 13% of all North American web traffic in the peak hours of 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. By 2013, that number dropped to 7%.


To CEO Eric Klinker, that decline is a good one.

To understand why, we have to start in 2008. The decision of whether or not to allow Internet providers to favor some forms of traffic over others–also known as net neutrality–was beginning to bubble up in Washington. Some providers started blocking forms of web traffic–it’s the best they can do to deal with the insane demand for transfers they get in those peak hours of 7 p.m. to 11 p.m.

“The rationale was that (all the traffic) was degrading the combined experience of all their users and therefore this was justified,” Klinker says, “and that struck at the core of an open Internet.”

Eric Klinker

BitTorrent was a rock between several hard places: the Internet providers, the lawmakers, and the users hungry for download speeds. But they didn’t have the conventional resources for getting things done in Washington. They only had 23 employees. They had no government affairs office, no avenue for lobbying legislation. But they did have some of the best technologists in the game, who were asking themselves a few important questions:

  • What if there was a way to solve the traffic jam without legislation?
  • And what if the solution were a technological one?

That solution was the Micro Transport Protocol–a new way of organizing the Internet traffic.

making a better protocol

Micro Transport Protocol, or uTP for short, is a way of allowing traffic to re-arrange itself so things don’t get so jam-packed. It’s like when you hack your commute by working for a few hours from home before taking to the bumper-to-bumper freeway or cheek-to-jowl subway: you wait to make your move until the coaster is clearer. Rather than having BitTorrent shoulder more of its way into bandwidth during peak hours, uTP re-arranges to a later time.


This stands in contrast to TCP/IP, an older, less agile protocol. When you’re on TCP/IP, the network hums along until a data starts failing to reach its destination. Only then does it signal that the Internet connection is congested.

“This is analogous to driving through a school zone and waiting to slow down until you’ve hit your first pedestrian,” Klinker says. “At the end of the day, TCP isn’t a particularly intelligent method; it’s designed to see damage on the traffic and then get out of the way. uTP is designed to sense that damage is about to happen and then get out of the way.”

How the fire sharing hits home

Let’s say you get home from work and want to watch House of Cards on Netflix or call your cousin on Skype. Under uTP, any BitTorrent transfers you have going on in the background will politely wait for your streaming to be finished before they jump in. Then, in the uncrowded hours of the late night, uTP lets your torrenting get going, soaking up all that suddenly spare bandwidth. Now that uTP is used for 80% of BitTorrent transfers, traffic no longer peaks in that 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. time slot. This is also why the monthly userbase has grown from 60 million in 2008 to 170 million today–all while the share of peak traffic continues to go down.

To Klinker, The uTP is a win-win-win. It’s allowed BitTorrent to get even bigger while lessening its presence at peak hours. It’s a win for Internet providers because they get more value from the existing investment of their network. It’s a win for users because they don’t want their downloads and uploads crowding into crowded hours.

Together, uTP feels like a lesson for the ongoing net neutrality debate.

“It’s the best example we have of technology being used to solve what is perceived to be a policy problem,” Klinker says. “Especially in the light of the Internet as a global phenomenon, there’s no single regulatory body for the Internet and hopefully there won’t be. It’s only through the technology that the Internet’s rules are written.”


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.