BitTorrent's strong support for an open internet is a defining characteristic of the company. Its vision of a "distributed" internet where users retain more control over their data and personal information is at the core of every product it launches, from its original peer-to-peer networking protocol (which gained so much fame as a piracy tool) to BitTorrent Sync, the company's answer to Dropbox.
Now, the company wants to apply that principle to the entire internet, starting with Maelstrom, a new web browser based on the BitTorrent protocol that launches today in a closed alpha testing phase. "Distributed technology can and does empower users," says BitTorrent CEO Eric Klinker, "and can solve what we see as some pretty big problems facing the net today: privacy, openness, efficiency."
BitTorrent proposes to fix those problems by moving away from the longstanding internet behavior of users connecting to a server to view a webpage or access content. Instead, Klinker and the BitTorrent team set out to answer the question of "what if more of the web worked the way BitTorrent worked?" In this vision, web publishers could publish, distribute, and update an entire website through the BitTorrent protocol, and others visiting the page would automatically help share the site's content, just as anyone downloading a file over BitTorrent would also start sharing the file with other peers.
Maelstrom is BitTorrent's latest effort to decentralize the internet
"What value does this deliver?" Klinker asks rhetorically. "There'd be fewer centralized servers to get in the way of you and your data or you and the content you're interested in — certainly less barriers between you publishing content, as well." While it's the early days for distributing web content through BitTorrent, project lead Rob Velasquez makes it sound as if publishing a BitTorrent-hosted site isn't any harder than creating your own bundle of BitTorrent files — but instead of distributing music or movie files, the Torrent contains all the HTML files necessary to render your page. "We've long looked at BitTorrent as a client that downloads files," Velasquez says, "We took that idea and said 'what if they weren't files? what if we put an HTML file inside of a Torrent and the browser just renders it?'"
Streamlining the process of actually viewing Torrent-hosted sites is where the Maelstrom browser comes in — it's a build of Google's open-source Chromium browser that can render the contents of a BitTorrent package, with results that look just like a standard site. Of course, there aren't any sites being hosted with BitTorrent now, which is why this first phase is just a closed alpha. The company has been recruiting testers to play around with Maelstrom and host sites of their own to help the BitTorrent team figure out what the next steps are.
It's the early days for the Maelstrom project, but the company has big ambitions
That's something the company wants to stress — this is a very early-stage effort for them, and it expects adoption of this new model to take some time. There's a host of questions still to be answered and design issues to be ironed out. For example, sites hosted by Torrent don't have an easy website address to remember; instead, they're identified by a mishmash of numbers and letters. "At the end of the day, we need a way to translate like DNS does, to make something more human-readable," says Klinker. To that end, the company is hard at work at building out its set of developer tools — by the time the beta launches sometime next year, BitTorrent will have an SDK-like tool that'll make publishing and sharing content much easier.
For now, however, BitTorrent is simply excited to get Maelstrom out to a small set of testers to see what they can build, but the company is bullish about the benefits that could come with a distributed internet. Perhaps the most notable example Klinker shares is around net neutrality, a topic of major concern to BitTorrent. "Maybe there's a way to solve [net neutrality] with technology," he muses. "Maybe we don't need to attack from a policy perspective." When using peer-to-peer technology, the traffic "is coming from everywhere, and the ISPs don't know where to plug the hole." It's a lofty and ambitious idea, but it speaks to the core of what BitTorrent is trying to do. "The internet has handled big problems in the past, and they always do it through innovation, through technology," Klinker says. "As long as engineers stay in control of this network, we think that's still possible.