Why The Pirate Bay can’t be shut down

Pirate Bay

On December 9 2014, Swedish police raided the servers of the file-sharing site The Pirate Bay, and finally managed to shut down the service for the first time since its creation in 2003. Police acted from a complaint from Swedish rights holder anti-piracy group Rights Alliance, and while I have not been able to find the court order, it is to be assumed that it could be some sort of injunction related to a lawsuit filed by the music and film industry in November against Swedish ISP Bredbandsbolaget.

I have to admit that I was surprised by the remarkable lack of coverage of this important development in the copyright wars. A few years back, this item would have dominated the news in a similar way than the famous trial of TPB 4 in Stockholm. Other than an initial  number of mainstream media articles remarking the demise of the site, there has been very little analysis and reporting of the shutting down other than the specialised sources such as TorrentFreak and Reddit.

The relative media silence could be explained by several reasons. Firstly, torrent file-sharing has become increasingly irrelevant in the current media environment as streaming is where the action is. Both Spotify and Netflix have had a huge effect on the regular consumer, and there is no longer such a great need to download infringing copies. If you are willing to wait a bit, then a large number of shows are available quite quickly though streaming.

Secondly, the copyright wars have become less of a headline news item. In the age of mass surveillance, those interested in digital rights have bigger fish to fry than the copyright lobbies.

Finally, the relative lack of interest about the fate of TPB might be down to the fact that many people recognise that the such legal action is an exercise in futility. Some years ago UK courts blocked The Pirate Bay, which did not stop anyone in Britain being able to connect to the service using proxies. One common denominator of decentralised services is precisely the extraordinary resilience to attacks that would otherwise annihilate another service. In 2012 TPB made the decision not to host any torrent files, they would only offer magnet links which directed users to torrent files hosted elsewhere. This made The Pirate Bay a very lean and efficient index of links, the most important part of the system became its database.

Almost immediately after being shut down this last December, other torrent sites started sharing the building blocks that make up The Pirate Bay, and vitally, they shared the database, making it possible for other people around the world to create their own version of TPB. IsoHunt has created a service called The Open Bay, which allows anyone in the world to easily host TPB, and it also runs a service called oldpiratebay.org, which is a functional recreation of The Pirate Bay. Clones then started springing up, most notably, one hosted in Costa Rica! Similarly, it is rumoured that a new service will emerge in February 2015, as there is now a countdown to that date at the old site.

All of the above is almost a textbook example of decentralisation in action, and just how the current legal battles will never win against sites such as The Pirate Bay. It also reminds me of a similar example depicted beautifully in fiction in the animé series Sword Art Online (my Gikii presentation here). In that series, all multiplayer roleplaying (MMORPG) games in the world are either banned or go out of business after players die in the real world due to the actions of a twisted game developer. The antagonist dies, but he shares a software tool called The Seed which allows anyone to create and host their own MMORPG, therefore bypassing regulatory action.

The moral of the story is that it is nearly impossible to shut down decentralised systems while they have been released into the wild. My guess is that we have not heard the last from TPB.