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Is BitTorrent’s TRON-Based Cryptocurrency Truly Decentralized?

Distributed Summary:

  • The company behind decentralized sharing protocol BitTorrent and TRON announced plans for a cryptocurrency, BTT
  • Token will be used by app developers to pay peers on BitTorrent to host their apps, per white paper
  • Unclear if token will be used by full decentralized BitTorrent community or just select segment

BitTorrent Inc. has released a cryptocurrency token that it says will provide new incentives for BitTorrent users to contribute computing resources to BitTorrent networks, according to a Medium blog post.

What Is BitTorrent?

BitTorrent is a protocol that allows people to share data over a decentralized network of peer-to-peer connections. In other words, it’s a set of rules for exchanging data directly between different computers, rather than centralizing data on servers, as most other internet protocols do. Introduced in 2001, the BitTorrent protocol was a precursor of sorts for some of the same ideas that underlie blockchain technology, even though BitTorrent networks are not blockchains.

Somewhat confusingly, BitTorrent is also the name of an application that lets people share data using the BitTorrent protocol, as well as a company, BitTorrent Inc., that owns that application. However, there are many other applications that support the BitTorrent protocol, and BitTorrent the company does not own the protocol or all BitTorrent applications.

TRON Launches BitTorrent Token

On January 3, the TRON Foundation, which is the parent organization of BitTorrent Inc. and which runs a global blockchain, announced on Medium that it was launching a new digital token. The token is also called BitTorrent (as if the term weren’t already confusing enough), or BTT for short.

TRON said it was launching the token in collaboration with the “BitTorrent Foundation.” That group appears to be the same as BitTorrent Inc., although the latter has not referred to itself as the BitTorrent Foundation previously.

According to a white paper published on BitTorrent Inc.’s site, the BitTorrent token will allow members of a BitTorrent network (or “swarm,” in BitTorrent parlance) to offer payment for priority access to resources being shared by other members of the network. This feature, called BitTorrent Speed, is intended to incentivize users to continue to participate in BitTorrent networks even after they have downloaded all of the data available on a given network.

Going forward, the BitTorrent token will be used to allow application developers to pay peers on BitTorrent networks to host their applications, according to the white paper. That sounds a lot like a DApp, although the white paper does not use that term and it’s unclear whether the solution that the TRON Foundation envisions would be architected in the same way as a DApp-compatible blockchain.

Who Can Use BTT?

It’s also unclear how widely endorsed or supported the new BitTorrent cryptocurrency token will be within the BitTorrent ecosystem. The white paper refers to the token as an extension of the BitTorrent protocol, but it says that the BitTorrent Speed feature will be integrated only into the two BitTorrent applications that BitTorrent Inc. controls. (Those applications are called BitTorrent and µTorrent.) There are many dozens of other BitTorrent clients out there, and it does not appear that they will be compatible with the token or BitTorrent Speed.

In that sense, this news is akin to a company like Microsoft announcing that it is “extending” HTTP, another popular internet protocol, with a special feature, but only making that feature compatible with its own web browser.

We’re thus left to wonder whether the BitTorrent token will be available to the decentralized BitTorrent community at large or only to the segment of users who adopt the tools offered by BitTorrent Inc. and its partners. In the latter case, the feature would seem to undercut the spirit of decentralization that undergirds both BitTorrent and blockchain technology, even if it offers powerful new incentives to BitTorrent users.

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