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Save The Earth Use BitTorrent

A recent article in Harpers (via Nicholas Carr) describes a data center that Google is building that will use enough energy to power 82,000 homes a year.  Information Week also reports that data centers worldwide will consume the combined output of fourteen nuclear or coal-fired power plants this year.

What if BitTorrent was repositioned as earth saving technology, and every time someone purchased a digital media file they had the opportunity to buy a locally “recycled” file instead of one that was sent from an energy intensive data center located 3,000 miles away?  And, what if recycling everyone’s “spent” media files could save enough energy to power 1,000,000 homes a year?

In the scenario above, recycling is a codeword for file sharing.  Language is powerful.  Sharing is a negative word in the media industry, but recycling gives sharing an entirely new meaning.  It would be hard to justify putting an end to file sharing - if sharing/recycling was found to be a highly efficient method for conserving a significant portion of the energy required to deliver digital media.


The consumption of digital media and cloud computing is exploding.  You have to wonder if the far-flung, hub and spoke model that large data centers are founded upon is hugely inefficient compared to obtaining a song or a movie from your friends in the neighborhood?  My guess and investors are betting that BitTorrent is more efficient.

BitTorrent may not be ideal for streaming; however if waiting ten minutes saves energy, the benefit should outweigh the inconvenience.

When companies, organizations and governments clamp down on file sharing, whose interests are being served?  Are they protecting copyright holders, or are they protecting the billions of dollars that have been poured into the hub and spoke model for owning and delivering media files?  It makes me wonder; there are legal and legitimate ways to use BitTorrent.  

Think about this: BitTorrent is a disruptive technology; it enables just about anyone to be a media company without the burden of running a huge data center.  The next time some entity clamps down on media sharing, politely remind them that they could be contributing to global warming☺

For the record, I am a rights holder.  At this point, I believe file sharing will help the music industry more than it hurts.  I also believe that every artist should be so lucky to have his or her music wildly shared around the globe.  MP3 players are the new radio, BitTorrent is a broadcaster; if an artist is not on the “radio”, he or she will remain unknown.  

What do you think?  Conserve energy and get on the new “radio” - it all sounds like a win-win to me.  (Note: The GreenBrick advertisement above is something I invented for this post.)       

Reader Comments (10)

In this vein, more Creative Commons/open source/GNU/PD material would serve the cause of greener file distribution, by removing copyright limitations upon the utility of bittorrent and superior technology in the ultimate pipeline. The creation of a consumer demand for material no longer subject to the limitations upon distribution imposed by copyrighted material without liberal licensing would be a market-based act of green consciousness not requiring an overhaul in copyright law.

March 16 | Unregistered Commentergurdonark

Hi there...first time reading your blog, I have a couple of points and would love to hear your response!

1) "I believe file sharing will help the music industry more than it hurts. I also believe that every artist should be so lucky to have his or her music wildly shared around the globe".

This may seem a convincing 'users' perspective but it is wildly idealistic! Essentially I share the same values as you do on this but what are you weighing up when you say ‘helps more than it hurts’?

2) "...what if recycling everyone's “spent” media files could save enough energy to power 1,000,000 homes a year"?

Have you got any proof that it is actually any greener? I do not see why concentrated data centres are any less green than a spread of networked PC’s with the same capacity?

Further, until 'green' file sharing though bit torrent etc is as user-friendly as mainstream outlets do you think it is likely to attract widespread support for legal downloads?


March 17 | Unregistered CommenterMark Wright

Thanks for the questions Mark.

My views don't necessarily represent the views of all of the authors on this blog...

At this point - BitTorrent helps more than it hurts - explain? "MP3 players are the new radio, BitTorrent is a broadcaster." I don't expect anyone to purchase music, tickets, access or whatever an artist has to sell until they have fully listened to an artist first. There are legal and revenue generating methods for getting songs into the "new radio". However, at this point in time I don't believe the other options (ad-supported for example) are broadly appealing to 100% of any artist's potential market niche. Until other options mature, have achieved general market acceptance/penetration, and until they are perceived as convenient for everyone - the BitTorrent channel on the "new radio" is too big to ignore.

Please don't confuse my like of BitTorrent with the any advice to solely give your music away for free. I believe an artist's music has to be everywhere and anywhere all at the same time - free, paid, streaming, ad-supported, physical CD, etc. You can start ignoring channels when they become irrelevant.

I don't buy into the theory that squashing BitTorrent makes everything remaining "paid". There will always be another way (stream clipping for example) to obtain music for free. The free-share channel should be important to every artist. Personally, I don't use it to obtain music. iTunes is more convenient to me and I suspect a big segment of the market feels exactly the same way. However for some genres, ignoring the free-share channel cuts off a big chunk of your potential audience.

Have I any proof that BitTorrent is greener? No, not yet. I wrote this post so that perhaps someone would come forward with statistical proof (data or links). I do carry this thought around though: concentrated data centers are redundant to the always-on Macintosh that sits on my desk. As I type this text, I can't see why my Mac can't be sharing out something to someone else. Perhaps a bit of extra energy is consumed, but it HAS to be less than running my Mac + running a server in a data center. There's a good reason why VC money is going into companies offering sharing propositions - that reason is efficiency.

March 17 | Registered CommenterBruce Warila

Bruce, don't you think that if everyone kept their computers on all the time, we'd in fact be using more energy than the largest data centres? Think about it: there's only so many computers you can fit under one roof...

Seriously though, if BitTorrent or any other file-sharing technology was used to distribute music and movies legally, the green aspect might be a valid point (if research data actually does show that it uses less energy). What I have a problem with in this argument that it seems like another attempt at convincing the file-sharers that what they are doing is actually a good thing. If you start giving music away for free, people will stop buying it: I think the Radiohead and Reznor/Saul Williams examples have shown us precisely that. If people stop buying music, making it will lose its economic sense.

This is exactly the kind of operational detail I get up in the morning for. Thank you...if I have to tolerate a farting ape to get this stuff, I guess I will.

Education and publicity will be clutch for this -- because although it's common-sense, it's only "obvious" to folks with a fairly sophisticated amount of background knowledge. We need to find ways to lay out the case for a more sane Internets design plan in a very visual and accessible way.

A friend of mine was recently remarking how odd it is that after the "supercity commuter" model for urban planning has shown itself to be a spectacular failure all over the Western Hemisphere, Google is proposing we replicate it online.

The problem in both cases is "legal" -- LAWS ARE WRITTEN TO BENEFIT AND PROTECT THE PRIVILEGED CLASS. These regulations have nothing to do with efficiency, effectiveness or common sense. Until that changes, looking for "legal" solutions and waiting for the herd managers to fix things for us is just plain dumb.

File-sharing happened without anyone asking for permission. It was an organic, anarchic and spontaneous cultural event. Hundreds of millions of dollars poured into efforts to control and reduce file-sharing have not made any difference.

So the debate about whether or not this is good for musicians or the industry are less than relevant. It simply is, it will simply continue to be, and we can either bitch or adapt.

March 19 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland


Most people never turn off their computer. You can look it up. Moreover, in the time it took you to type your comment to me, you could have shared out a song; whilst you were burning a bit of energy just typing away...

Also, I would prefer to see something legal like the GreenBrick concept (above) welded into platforms like iTunes.

The problem with the file sharing debate is that too much is spent on arguing right or wrong. Regardless, it is something that can't be stopped. I want to move the debate to another place. Dig out the value, capitalize on it and move on. Fighting file sharing is like pissing in the wind. With the cash that has gone into fighting it, this industry could have introduced revolutionary digital products that would have changed the entire playing field...

March 19 | Registered CommenterBruce Warila

I know that most people never turn off their computer and they ought to if you're talking green. :P

As for the rest, it may be a futile battle, but I believe (and perhaps will find the time to illustrate this in depth and writing) that the right or wrong is a crucial if not the only really important aspect of the battle. At the present rate of technological development, discussing what is is besides the point. The file-sharing debate is about influencing the course of the future: either we accept that there is no way that digital content is and should be free on a de facto basis and we never expect to earn a penny of income on it ever again (it's real hard to convince someone to pay for something that he has an idea should be free) or we try to maintain that copyrights should be protected in the digital domain (and if we accept file-sharing, I can't see any reason why we should object to pirated CDs f'r instance) and use all legal instruments necessary to do so.

I switch off my computer when I'm not using it, by the way. And my monitor. You should have a look at the energy consumption statistics of a computer running on idle. If we all did, the energy savings would outweigh any number of data centers. Have a nice day! :D

"The file-sharing debate is about influencing the course of the future..."

Krzysztof thanks. This is a worthwhile debate for sure. Sharing MP3s that sell for 99 cents or less is not going to change the future much. A product that sells for 99 cents does not enable much of a future. To me, the digital future is not about the MP3. The digital future, if I have my way, is going to be about bundled digital assets, and the MP3 (shareable or not) will be a "tool" in the "toolbox".

Here's just a simple example of putting nuts in the wrong basket. DRM is gone/done right. Why hasn't a single major label started their own download store? It's not rocket science, and it's not worth paying Apple or Amazon 30% of every sale to run a point of sale terminal to enable the sale of music. Take Apple/Amazon out of the equation and let 30% of the world share music and you have a better ecosystem.

People worry that everyone will share if it is OK for that 30% to do so. If the MP3 is the last digital product this industry makes - the worriers should be worried; they should also be worried about a lot more than sharing if that's the case.

Sharing - unless it is legally baked into compelling products - will never be for everyone. As you get older (for example), you run out of time. Reliability, convenience and uniformity start to become as important as free... Innovation is the answer, not government intervention. Moreover, I stand by my guess that sharing is greener than centralized distribution...

March 19 | Registered CommenterBruce Warila

The question isn't about technology, but about the public perception of copyright. Once you accept that music is free, it ceases to be a marketable commodity. Period.

As for the green, do your own calculations: how much power does an entire household use in comparison to a computer that's on all the time. Ten times more? That would mean that the Google data center would be the equivalent of 820,000 computers. How many computers are there in the US alone? How much energy could we save if all those computers were turned off when not in use? (There's an energy savings campaign here in Poland, that's encouraging people to do just that). Which figure is bigger? Which figure is way bigger?

While you were typing that last comment, you could have shared a song. Then you can turn your computer off...

Krzysztof - you have to think beyond the MP3. There are digital products that could contain "sharable" MP3s as part of a bigger, more compelling and more profitable package...

March 24 | Registered CommenterBruce Warila

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