The Secret World of Private BitTorrent Trackers

Somewhere on the web is the ultimate music site. It has virtually every album, EP and single ever released in a variety of high-quality formats with insanely fast download speeds. You're probably not allowed in.

The Pirate Bay is dead. So is TorrentSpy, MiniNova, Suprnova and many other public BitTorrent trackers. But the most savvy and obsessive file hoarders don't care about that stuff; they wouldn't be caught dead using public trackers.

People serious about downloading pirated music, movies, TV shows, software and other media aren't interested in getting a letter from their ISP or the RIAA/IFPI/MPAA/CRIA. They're also not interested in getting viruses or fake files, often seeded on public trackers by copyright enforcers looking to make piracy annoying. So they've built up hundreds of private sites that only trusted users can access.

A private BitTorrent tracker is a site that you can only gain access to via an invite from a current user. Some of them are very basic, featuring merely a searchable list of torrents people have uploaded. Many feature forums with the trackers for people to announce and discuss files that are available. The most sophisticated feature gigantic databases that organize the files like the greatest online downloading store ever built, but with no checkout.

There are huge private trackers that, like The Pirate Bay, offer up everything and anything that you could want. But there are many more smaller, more specialized trackers. There are sites for music, for movies, for HD Blu-ray movie rips, for both Mac and PC software, for porn, for comic books, for console games, for anime, for TV shows, for E-books and for sporting events. If you know where to look, you can find a site that specializes in exactly what you care about downloading the most.

But downloading media isn't the only thing going on at these sites. At some, they're software development communities, with large numbers of developers donating time to building the site together into something more than just a place to grab files and leave. And it's just this sort of development that gives these sites the ability to reappear in different forms if they get shut down. Because, when you're in the illegal file-swapping business, getting busted is a fact of life.

The RIAA told me that while both public and private trackers are "enormously damaging," they've handed the reins over to the IFPI (International Federation of the Phonographic Industry) to go after these sites. This is probably because many of these sites are hosted overseas. The IFPI told me that "it focuses resources on the top of the illegal supply chain of music, regardless of whether that is a public tracker, private tracker or other source."

OiNK was probably the biggest private music tracker on the web when it was shut down in 2007 by the IFPI. It was huge and well loved. Even Trent Reznor admitted he had an account:

I'll admit I had an account there and frequented it quite often. At the end of the day, what made OiNK a great place was that it was like the world's greatest record store. Pretty much anything you could ever imagine, it was there, and it was there in the format you wanted. If OiNK cost anything, I would certainly have paid, but there isn't the equivalent of that in the retail space right now.

The Secret World of Private BitTorrent Trackers

OiNK was so well loved because, as Reznor said, it was amazing. If there was an album you were searching for, it was a couple of clicks away. And thanks to infamously strict bitrate requirements, it was available in a number of formats, all higher-quality than what iTunes was offering at the time.

Furthermore, OiNK had very strict ratio requirements, meaning that if you didn't upload as well as download, you'd be kicked off the site. This ensured that files were seeded for a long time and were continually available.

Last month, after a two-year legal ordeal, OiNK founder Allen Ellis was found not guilty and released in the UK. But immediately upon OiNK's demise, multiple other trackers popped up to replace it, built by former members of the OiNK community and following the same ratio and quality guidelines that made OiNK so popular. And those replacements offer even more functionality than OiNK did, continuing to grow and improve in the years since it was shut down.

The Secret World of Private BitTorrent Trackers

One of them, let's call it Site X, has surpassed OiNK in terms of content and functionality. It's run like a business, with multiple staffers putting in many hours a week to code it, manage it and work on new features. I talked to the founder and lead SysOp of Site X, who said when the site first started he put in a full-time job's worth of hours. "Nowadays, a conservative estimate would be 15 hours," which is still no small amount. And he is one of three SysOps. There are also two administrators, one developer and 17 moderators on the Site X staff. That's a lot of manpower for something nobody is getting paid for.

And according to this head SysOp, all money made from user donations goes to maintaining the servers and not into any wallets. "I'd be too scared to touch it, even if I could dampen my sense of morality enough to reach my hand into the piggybank." (One of the main charges levied against OiNK founder Alan Ellis was that he made "hundred of thousands of pounds" from user donations.)

The Secret World of Private BitTorrent TrackersSite X's main feature is its huge database of torrents. All are organized by artist, so you can find everything someone has released in one place. Many releases are available in multiple file formats, ranging from lossless FLAC to various bitrates of MP3 to AAC to Ogg, for weirdos that really want their music to all be in Ogg. And for major releases with multiple versions available, you'll find every version, from the original to the vinyl to rereleases, available separately.

Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, for example, has 20 different versions available on Site X spread across 60 different download options (click the image to the left to see the entire crazy list). Sure, most people will go for the basic V0 MP3 of the standard issue recording, but if you really want to find the 1981 Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab master digitized from vinyl as FLACs, or the 1983 Japanese Black Triangle Pressing in 320 AAC, they're here. It's a completists' paradise.

But what about discovering new music? Site X has two features that help with that: collages and similar artist maps. Collages are basically user-made lists of albums. They can be something like Pitchfork's 100 Best Albums of the 70's or AllMusic 5 Star Albums or just one guy's favorite 90's ska records. At the bottom of every album page it lists what collages that album is a part of so you can explore other music that somehow relates to it.

The Secret World of Private BitTorrent Trackers

Similar artist maps are visual guides that appear at the bottom of each artist page. Anyone can add an artist they feel is similar to an artist's page, and as those suggestions get voted up and down, they appear in various sizes in the visual guide at the bottom. Like a band? Simply check out other bands in the map to try something similar.

The Secret World of Private BitTorrent Trackers

All of this is built on a system that's rooted in a community. There's an extensive forum here, as well as a Wiki full of information on everything from site rules to how to digitize a vinyl perfectly. And the community helps build the site, coding features that are added to the system and creating hundreds of custom CSS skins to change the appearance.

But what if Site X gets shut down like OiNK was? It has over 116,000 users as of this writing, a number far too large for it to escape the notice of the same people that shut down OiNK. The head SysOp admits that they've already gained some unwanted attention: "We've gotten multiple letters from the CRIA, but none in the past year and a half. It's been very quiet lately. They've either realized they can't do anything, or are busy launching an amazing assault." Won't all the work put into this system be for nothing if the latter is true?

Nope. Because the entire site was built as an open-source piece of software called Gazelle, one that's continually tweaked and updated. Gazelle runs the whole structure of the site, and they're currently working on writing an entirely original tracker from scratch for it. And so far, there are over 50 other private trackers running Gazelle. If one dies, another will pop up to replace it.

So does the existence of such a large network of meticulously-built private BitTorrent sites mean the IFPI and other trade organizations are losing the piracy battle? No, actually. These sites are very difficult to get into and just as difficult to stay in once you're there. They are most definitely not for laypeople, and they're also not at "the top of the supply chain." The days of Napster and Kazaa making piracy easy enough for your mom to do it are gone. It's actually harder to pirate media now than it was a few years ago thanks to the efforts of copyright holders.

Yes, these sites exist that are far, far better than any option has ever been before. But even a site as large and sophisticated as Site X has only 116,000 members. That's nothing compared to the millions of people who populated the large peer-to-peer file-sharing programs a few years ago.

So yes, piracy is indeed alive and well, more sophisticated than ever before. But it's been pushed to places that most people can't get to, and though that's an unlikely victory for the recording industry, I doubt they'd ever claim it as theirs.