The Shadow Internet

Topsite

URL   : http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/13.01/topsite.html
TITLE : Wired 13.01: The Shadow Internet

                             The Shadow Internet 
                             -------------------                         

They start with a single stolen file and pump out bootleg games and movies by 
the millions. Inside the pirate networks that are terrorizing the entertainment 
business.

Anathema is a so-called topsite, one of 30 or so underground, highly secretive 
servers where nearly all of the unlicensed music, movies, and videogames 
available on the Internet originate. Outside of a pirate elite and the Feds who 
track them, few know that topsites exist. Even fewer can log in.

Within minutes of appearing on Anathema, Half-Life 2 spread. One file became 30 
files became 3,000 files became 300,000 files as Valve stood helplessly by 
watching its big Christmas blockbuster turn into a lump of coal. The damage was 
irreversible - the horse was out of the barn, the county, and the state. The 
original Half-Life has sold more than 10 million games and expansion packs since 
its late 1998 release. Half-Life 2's official release finally happened in 
November, after almost a year of reprogramming.

When Frank (who, like all the pirates interviewed for this article, is 
identified by a pseudonym) posted the Half-Life 2 code to Anathema, he tapped an 
international network of people dedicated to propagating stolen files as widely 
and quickly as possible.

It's all a big game and, to hear Frank and others talk about "the scene," 
fantastic fun. Whoever transfers the most files to the most sites in the least 
amount of time wins. There are elaborate rules, with prizes in the offing and 
reputations at stake. Topsites like Anathema are at the apex. Once a file is 
posted to a topsite, it starts a rapid descent through wider and wider levels of 
an invisible network, multiplying exponentially along the way. At each step, 
more and more pirates pitch in to keep the avalanche tumbling downward. Finally, 
thousands, perhaps millions, of copies - all the progeny of that original file -
spill into the public peer-to-peer networks: Kazaa, LimeWire, Morpheus. Without 
this duplication and distribution structure providing content, the P2P networks 
would run dry. (BitTorrent, a faster and more efficient type of P2P file-
sharing, is an exception. But at present there are far fewer BitTorrent users.)

It's a commonly held belief that P2P is about sharing files. It's an appealing, 
democratic notion: Consumers rip the movies and music they buy and post them 
online. But that's not quite how it works.

In reality, the number of files on the Net ripped from store-bought CDs, DVDs, 
and videogames is statistically negligible. People don't share what they buy; 
they share what is already being shared - the countless descendants of a single 
"Adam and Eve" file. Even this is probably stolen; pirates have infiltrated the 
entertainment industry and usually obtain and rip content long before the public 
ever has a chance to buy it.

The whole shebang - the topsites, the pyramid, and the P2P networks girding it 
all together - is not about trading or sharing at all. It's a broadcast system. 
It takes a signal, the new U2 single, say, and broadcasts it around the world. 
The pirate pyramid is a perfect amplifier. The signal becomes more robust at 
every descending level, until it gets down to the P2P networks, by which time it 
can be received by anyone capable of typing "U2" into a search engine.

This should be good news for law enforcement. Lop off the head (the topsites), 
and the body (the worldwide trade in unlicensed media) falls lifeless to the 
ground. Sounds easy, but what if you can't find the head? As in any criminal 
conspiracy, it takes years of undercover work to get inside. An interview 
subject warned me against even mentioning Anathema in this article: "You do not 
need some 350-pound hit man with a Glock at your front door."

The upper reaches of the network are a "darknet," hidden behind layers of 
security. The sites use a "bounce" to hide their IP address, and members can log 
in only from trusted IP addresses already on file. Most transmissions between 
sites use heavy-duty encryption. Finally, they continually change the usernames 
and passwords required to log in. Estimates say this media darknet distributes 
more than half a million movies every day. It's also, by any reading of the law, 
a vast criminal enterprise engaged in wholesale copyright infringement.

But the Feds are getting smarter. Last spring, the FBI and US Department of 
Justice launched a series of raids codenamed Fastlink. Working with cops in 
Sweden, the Netherlands, and eight other countries, the operation seized more 
than 200 computers. One confiscated server alone contained 65,000 pirated 
titles. Fastlink rubbed out a few topsites, but new ones filled the void. The 
flow of illicit games and movies slowed briefly, then resumed. In April, federal 
agents interrogated Frank and impounded all his computer equipment. So far, no 
charges have been filed. "But the Feds had no idea about Half-Life," he boasts. 
"I was never connected to that shit. If they found out, I'd be in jail."

Bruce Forest, a self-described "elder statesman" in the piracy scene, started 
ripping and trading in the ancient days of the late '80s. While he no longer 
actively traffics in bootlegged media, he maintains contacts that give him 
access to the most exclusive topsites. What the topsites don't know is that 
three years ago, Forest came in from the cold. "Basically, I'm a double agent," 
he concedes. "Though I don't fink anyone out. I'm not a cop."

As a consultant for one of the world's largest entertainment companies, Forest 
notifies his bosses whenever one of their movies appears on a topsite. Thanks to 
his unparalleled access, he enjoys a bird's-eye view of the scene. And because 
he's ostensibly on the right side of the law, he's uncommonly open with 
information. This makes him an anomaly within the paranoid byways of the media 
darknet.

Forest runs his business from the first floor of his rural Connecticut home. 
He's in his mid-40s but moves with jerky, adolescent energy. His brown hair is 
in perpetual disarray, and he pads around his office with bare feet, dressed in 
cargo shorts and a faded polo. Gold and platinum albums from his days as a 
producer at Island Records, MCA, and Arista line one wall. A baroque array of 
computer equipment fills the next, including 13 CPUs and 16 external hard drives 
(for a total of 3 terabytes of storage). His desk runs the length of the room 
and supports five full-size LCD displays. I hear a soft ping. "That tells me a 
movie just made its first appearance on a topsite." He points to a window on the 
monitor. It shows an innocent-looking list of files from an FTP site. The 
uppermost file says, "Hellboy.SCREENER.Proper.READ NFO PRE VCD." Translation: 
The DVD of one of the year's biggest box office hits has been pirated two months 
before its intended release date. "The FBI would kill to be sitting here looking 
at this," he says.

Even first-run movies get ripped. "Remember what happened to The Hulk?" he asks. 
On June 6, two weeks before its official release, a near-final version of The 
Hulk showed up online. To hear studio executives tell it, the bootleg went 
straight to the P2P networks and spread like a contagion.

"Bullshit," says Forest. "Trying to distribute The Hulk through the P2Ps would 
take months, not hours." That's because files on the public file-sharing 
networks, where no single node is much more powerful than the next, spread at a 
glacial pace. Furthermore, when users connect to a P2P network - FastTrack, for 
example - they connect only to a small proportion of the number of other users 
connected at the same time. So unless a topsite seeds a file across the P2P 
network, the odds are slim that someone searching for a copy will actually find 
it.

Forest pushes a hand through his hair, leaving it standing on end, and rotates 
in his Aeron to look me in the eye. "Here's what actually happened: Universal 
gave the workprint to its Manhattan ad agency. Then the print got to SMF. And 
bam!" SMF, Forest explains, is a piracy group that specializes in acquiring 
movies in theatrical release.

Before the folks at SMF could release the movie to a topsite, they had to 
compress it - from roughly 9 Gbytes to 700 Mbytes, small enough to fit on a 
single CD. Now the film drops. Forest won't say to which topsite SMF first 
posted The Hulk, only that "SMF had affiliations with certain sites, so it must 
have been one of those."

Within an hour, word had spread that The Hulk had appeared on the topsites, and 
the "races" began - copying and distributing the files to as many other servers 
as possible, as quickly as possible. "The races are over like that," says 
Forest, snapping his fingers. "It's amazing."

Soon, The Hulk was working its way down the pyramid onto slightly less exclusive 
sites called dumps. "These sites are a little slower, and they aren't getting 
stuff first," explains Forest. "On the other hand, they're getting a lot more 
traffic." With as much as several terabytes of data storage, the dumps are the 
workhorses of the distribution process, storing hundreds of thousands of media 
files filtered down from the topsites and rolling them to the next layer of the 
pyramid, the distribution channels.

In 24 hours, SMF's single version of The Hulk had metastasized into at least 
50,000 copies. Within 72 hours, the movie was all over the most popular P2P 
networks. Before it reached even a single shared file folder on Kazaa, Forest 
estimates there were already several hundred thousand copies in circulation, 
guaranteeing that casual computer users would be able to find and download it 
easily.

One of Forest's computers pipes up again. Another bootleg has just started its 
race down the pyramid.

Movie pirates get their booty from one of three sources: industry insiders, 
projectionists, or agents placed inside disc-stamping plants and retail outlets. 
"Half the kids in the scene work at Best Buy or Blockbuster to get their hands 
on stuff they can release," says Frank. "At the factory, maybe 15 percent of CDs 
and DVDs are defective," says Forest, "usually just because the label is off a 
little bit." They're dumped into a rubbish bin, ripe for the picking.

Release groups break down broadly by medium - videogame, film, music, television 
- and then often into genre. One release group, for instance, specializes in 
obscure Japanese anime. Another works exclusively in Xbox games. Every release 
group has the same ultimate goal: Beat the street date of a big-name album, 
videogame, or movie by as much time as possible.

In 2003, Frank and his friends started a release group devoted to first-run 
movies. They placed an online ad, and a projectionist in Maryland responded. The 
projectionist, who never told Frank his name, proposed to send them the movies 
shown in his theater in exchange for free downloads from the topsites. Frank's 
posse wanted to test the guy first - standard procedure for a release group. "We 
had to know he wasn't a narc," says Frank, "and that he could get us quality 
product on a regular basis."

Frank's projectionist passed this test by providing the group with a high-
quality copy of Spy Kids 3D: Game Over. The bootleg was posted the day after it 
hit theaters. Theaters get movies several days in advance so that exhibitors can 
check for defects in the reels. "Our dude would just run the film before anyone 
got to work, and record it from the booth," he says. Frank and his friends 
christened their group "MaTinE." Because their supplier - the projectionist -
could get them high-quality recordings, MaTinE got noticed. "Eventually, we were 
putting our movies on one of the best topsites in the world," says Frank. He 
won't tell me the name of the site, noting it got busted by the FBI. "I can't 
have them thinking I put the heat on them, know what I mean?"

The quality of bootlegged films varies, depending on the technology used to 
capture the original reel. The best are produced using expensive TV studio 
equipment that can convert film to video. The next best are "telesyncs," copies 
of a movie in which the visuals have been captured by camcorder but the audio 
comes directly from a patch into the projector. "The top telesync groups, like 
Centropy, VideoCD, and TCF, are using $10,000 camcorders they get directly from 
Japan, cams you can't find in the US," says Frank. The least desirable releases 
are "cams," made by an audience member with a camcorder.

I ask Frank how his group could afford such exotic toys. "People buy them for 
us," he says, as if this explains everything. "Usually, these people were in the 
scene at one time, and now they just want free downloads without having to 
contribute." As it turns out, much of the extensive hardware - from superfast 
processors to servers with terabytes of storage - are donated by these well-
heeled patrons. "Does Bruce Forest do that?" I ask. "I don't know," Frank says, 
laughing. "What did Bruce tell you?"

In fact, Forest freely admits to being a supplier. "I have bought everything 
from hard drives to complete computers for various people in the scene. I've 
probably bought 15 camcorders alone." He says he considers it a business 
expense, and writes it off on his taxes.

Whatever the original source - stamping plant, movie theater, or local 
Blockbuster - the film has to be properly prepared for distribution over the 
networks. Converting analog to digital is a difficult, time-consuming process. 
And getting it into a form that can be easily compressed into a digital box many 
times smaller than its original size is an even bigger undertaking. If it isn't 
done well, a topsite will reject the file. "Quality control is the number one 
job of the release groups," says Forest. "Topsites will only take a file that 
fits a long list of specifications. It basically has to be perfect."

To make sure it is, release groups rely on highly skilled technicians 
responsible for compressing and packaging the media file. As Forest and I watch 
the ripped copy of Hellboy, he pauses the movie. "Look at this," he says. A 
massive fight has just taken place, and Hellboy is perched on a bridge 
overlooking a devastated cityscape. It's been raining, and the havoc is 
reflected in a puddle, into which he stares deeply. "Oh my God. Look at that 
reflection. Do you have any idea how hard that is to capture?"

Different scenes require different treatments. "It's almost like using a 
paintbrush," says Forest. "A good ripper will know exactly how to apply the 
codec properly." A codec, or compression-decompression algorithm, is a method of 
reducing file size to ease its transfer over the Internet. Video is normally 
compressed using variations of MPEG codecs. A serious ripper will adjust the 
bitrate of compression in every scene of a movie to account for changing hue and 
lighting.

Toby is a master ripper. At 22, he's got a big man's frame but looks 
malnourished, like he doesn't get enough vegetables. He spends most of his time 
preparing movies for the Netflix Project. Started by an anonymous donor - again, 
an angel investor willing to devote money but not time to media piracy - the 
Netflix Project aims to archive every film offered by the subscription service. 
"Netflix offers about 25,000 movies," says Toby. "We've got maybe half of them." 
Each time Toby finishes condensing and packaging a movie, it gets placed on a 
central server. The archive is free for members who score a password and can get 
through the encryption. (Asked for comment, Netflix politely declined.)

I'd been told Toby would be cagey, but I find him funny and sweet. In 2000, he 
moved to Atlanta to attend college, but after spending a year and a half holed 
up in his dorm room ripping and burning, he flunked out. "Computer science is 
impossible," he says. "But I didn't really go to class, so part of it might be 
my fault, sort of."

Two weeks before the release of A Perfect Circle's new album, Thirteenth Step, 
Kevin races home after high school each day, goes down to his basement, and 
checks various release sites to see if someone has posted it. Kevin resides a 
few levels down the pyramid from the topsite operators; he's a courier for a 
couple release groups dealing in emo and hardcore rips, and A Perfect Circle is 
the file du jour.

Usually such a sought-after property first appears on sites far more exclusive 
and glamorous than the ones Kevin has access to, but he's hopeful a copy will 
show up soon. Couriers like Kevin are the grunts of the system, but without the 
"curries" transferring and duplicating files, the massive distribution network 
would break down.

Finally Kevin checks a site telling him that a rip of Thirteenth Step has just 
been uploaded to a secure FTP site - a week before it hits the stores. He curses 
under his breath. More than two minutes have elapsed since the file first 
appeared. The race is on, and Kevin is already at the back of the pack. He opens 
FlashFXP - a program that allows him to directly transfer files - and begins 
copying the CD to as many sites as he can. Then he sits back to watch the race. 
Everything now depends on the whimsy of Internet traffic and the speed of the 
server farms whose bandwidth he is pirating.

With his quick, eager intelligence and, more important, a high degree of focus, 
Kevin spends hours at a stretch performing the minute tasks of copying and 
transferring files, usually to networks in the middle levels of the pyramid. 
It's through grunts like him that a song proliferates from 10,000 copies to 1 
million. The night A Perfect Circle's CD was posted, Kevin stayed up late 
spreading the file around the Net. The curries competing against him must have 
gotten stuck behind some double-wide trailer of a packet, because Kevin's 
credits poured in.

Credits are how the curries - and most everyone else - get paid. Back in the 
early days of the scene, when there were maybe 100 dedicated geeks trading 
copies of The Last Ninja over their Commodore 64s, the rule was established that 
site members had to upload one unit (kilobytes at first, now megs or even gigs) 
for every three they download. The rule creates an incentive to obtain and 
release, and it's this odd form of greed that drives the scene. It's true, as 
Forest likes to point out, that no one gets paid (unless they strike up 
relations with for-profit Chinese bootleggers, which is considered bad form). 
But they do get a lot of free stuff - movies, music, games, and software -
without having to deal with the spyware, phony files, and traffic jams that 
plague the public P2P networks.

In fact, pretty much everyone joins the races from time to time. It's how the 
pirates while away their idle hours - the release group operator waiting for a 
new movie to be delivered, the ripper biding time while his gigabyte-sized files 
compress. Yet the best racers aren't even downloading all the pirate media they 
have access to. They have credits to burn, but that's not all that drives them. 
"It's about being the fastest," Frank says.

The kids in the scene aren't trying to bomb the system. They don't care a whit 
whether major labels suffer more from file-sharing than indie labels, or if a 
ban on prerelease DVDs affects Miramax's chances at the Academy Awards. They do 
this because it feels mildly rebellious, like smoking a doobie behind the local 
Kroger or setting off the school fire alarm - and because it's fun.

Like ants, curries are monomaniacal about tiny tasks - they copy and move files 
from place to place - but together they form a force so powerful that it 
threatens to displace the traditional forms of media distribution. In fact, 
Forest believes the scene will eventually go legit, and he's even started a 
company, called Jun Group, that uses the topsites to promote movies, musicians, 
and TV shows. "The topsites don't care where their files come from, as long as 
no one else has them," he says. Last summer Jun Group dropped a collection of 
live videos and MP3s from Steve Winwood on the topsites. "We got 2.9 million 
downloads," says Forest, "and album sales took off."

                            Behind the Scene
                            ----------------

Call it trickle-down file-sharing. The goods - a game, movie, song, or other 
piece of copyrighted media fall into an insider's hands. Then it's only a matter 
of hours before a drop becomes a tidal wave.

- Erik Malinowski

1. THE INSIDER

Industry and theater employees run their own straight-to-video operations. 
Hackers looking for prerelease videogames target company servers. And before 
that long-awaited CD hits Amazon.com, moles inside disc-stamping plants have 
already got a copy.

2. THE PACKAGER

The pirated goods are passed on to a release group. These groups take multi-
gigabyte movie files and squeeze them down for easy online trading.

3. THE DISTRIBUTOR

Release groups are known to have exclusive relationships with certain so-called 
topsites. These are the highly secretive sites at the top of the distribution 
pyramid. When a topsite operator drops a file, the avalanche begins.

4. THE COURIERS

Alerted by release groups, worker bees spring into action, copying and 
transferring files from the topsites to lower-level dump sites, and then from 
there to P2P networks like Kazaa and Morpheus. For the couriers, the payoff is 
props from their peers and credits redeemable for goods on upper levels of the 
pyramid.

5. THE PUBLIC

After the file is copied thousands of times the P2P networks saturate, allowing 
casual file-traders easy access to the newest movies, music, and videogames.

Contributing editor Jeff Howe (jeffhowe@wiredmag.com) wrote about desalination 
in issue 12.11.

Links

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License