Last week, the blockchain platform Tron announced it would launch “BitTorrent Token,” a cryptocurrency that would link to the BitTorrent file-sharing client and, in the words of the BitTorrent Token white paper, “create a token-based economy around the usage of networking, bandwidth and storage” on the roughly 100 million computers that currently run BitTorrent.
Tron supporters and investors have been exuberant since the announcement. Tron CEO Justin Sun has described BTT as “the token that will enable #blockchain mass adoption.” Sun has continued his longstanding habit of commenting frequently on the price of Tron[TRX] tokens, which were up as much as 50 percent in the week after BTT’s unveiling. Tron holders will receive a share of BTT through an airdrop, so the TRX price rally implies that the market believes in Sun’s plans for BTT.
Of course, the skeptical case against BTT is simple: BitTorrent has been running just fine without a token for more than a decade. Was this just another “shitcoin,” a token that provided no real utility except extracting a few bucks from credulous investors?
To find out more, BREAKER reached out to a number of current and former Tron executives, including Justin Knoll, current lead of Tron’s BitTorrent integration. We didn’t hear back from Knoll, but we did hear from Simon Morris, who spent nearly a decade as an executive at BitTorrent. Most recently (following a short departure during a shakeup that is a story of its own), Morris was BitTorrent’s chief strategy officer, tasked with exploring the potential of blockchain and cryptocurrency.
“Initially it was just, hey, there’s a crazy bubble going on, let’s join in,” Morris admits. But he and his team, which he says was composed of some of the best engineering talent that had passed through BitTorrent over the years, discovered that there could be serious utility to “tokenizing” their software. Automated auctions to prioritize download queues, Morris says, could make the entire BitTorrent network as much as 40 percent faster.
Now, Tron says it will implement something like what Morris conceptualized. There’s only one problem: According to Morris, there’s “no way” the Tron blockchain can handle the transaction volume needed to tokenize BitTorrent. And Morris thinks there’s little reason to believe Tron’s claims about BitTorrent Token, or anything else.
“It seems they’re going in the same direction [as our plan],” Morris told BREAKER. “But what’s very clear is that they’re going to say they’re going in the same direction, come what may, because that’s what Tron does…it’s basically a marketing machine layered on a very thin veneer of technology.”
Morris would know. As BitTorrent CSO during and after the acquisition, Morris says he visited Tron operations in China and spent “a decent amount of time” with Sun.
Of Sun, Morris says: “It’s very clear that Justin is very strong at marketing. He has a very nice personality from a marketing point of view. He doesn’t have a technical bone in his body. He wouldn’t understand, technically, anything. But the approach that bothered me was, the very sort of Trumpian approach—if you get caught in a lie, the answer is you double down on the lie. [It was] the endless doubling down on lies that made me think it wasn’t going to be a fit.”
Morris says the Tron acquisition of BitTorrent was essentially complete by May 2018. Morris left BitTorrent in July, as the acquisition became public, after concluding that “the path to building any sort of relationship of trust with the people in charge [at Tron] looked completely impossible.”
“I had very candid conversations with [Sun] about [the] plagiarized white papers."
Tron sent BREAKER the following statement in response to Morris’s criticisms: “Morris appears to have little insight into BitTorrent operational plans since his departure,” a TRON spokesman said. “Actions and execution will prove louder than the words of a disgruntled former employee.”
Nonetheless, Morris’s comments align with some very public embarrassments suffered by Sun and Tron, including evidence that the network’s initial white paper was partly plagiarized, and that Tron has used code without proper attribution.
“I had very candid conversations with [Sun] about [the] plagiarized white papers,” Morris recounts. “I said, ‘Justin, maybe what you should do is acknowledge the fact that you were young and you were scrappy, and maybe this happened, but now you’ve moved on and you’re sincerely building things.’ [I told him] this was probably a preferable way to communicate in Silicon Valley than to pretend it didn’t happen.
“His reaction was to say, ‘We have come to consensus that this did not happen. And we have moved on.’ Which is obviously hard [to maintain], because there’s actual proof [of the plagiarism] out there.”
And according to Morris, it’s unlikely Tron can actually execute transactions at the rate needed to make a tokenized BitTorrent work.
“It was very clear when I was [at BitTorrent] that there was no way the transaction capacity of Tron would [work],” says Morris, sounding more bemused than angry. “The transactional capacity we [were] looking at was needing hundreds of transactions a second just to get started. It’s simply not there. You hear all the bullshit out there, oh, this does 10,000 transactions a second. It’s all crap. We were going to melt Tron. Literally destroy it.”
Why, then, does Morris think Tron is ignoring this obvious barrier? Again, he suspects a blurry line between marketing and outright deception.
“I suspect that what they’re really going to do is they’ll do it on some central server, they’ll wave their hands and say, ‘Oh, it’s a Lightning Network for Tron,’ or something, and pretend it’s Tron-based, but it’s not really Tron-based.”
Morris, who has continued to work on blockchain projects after leaving BitTorrent, also threw cold water on Tron’s broader technical claims.
“All the nonsense about, oh, it’s the best blockchain ever, it’s so much better than Ethereum. It’s not: it’s a fork of Ethereum J. They didn’t even bother to apply the security updates subsequently.” (In a June 2018 analysis, the firm Digital Asset Research determined that Tron’s Java-Tron client “was derived from Ethereum J.” This borrowing was, for a time, not acknowledged by Tron.)
The alleged implausibility of Tron’s plans for BitTorrent Token is particularly disappointing because the idea for tokenizing BitTorrent that Morris developed is so clever. BitTorrent works by breaking up big files into pieces as they’re downloaded by a swarm of machines, which in turn pass the file on to others. BitTorrent’s efficiency is determined, in large part, by which members of a downloading swarm get files first: if users with the fastest internet connections get their downloads first, they can then “seed” the file, making them available for other downloaders, and in turn letting everyone download faster.
But determining who really has the fastest connection, and thus should be first in line for a download, isn’t easy. BitTorrent currently uses a kind of internal barter system to try to spot the best connections. But according to Morris, a tokenized system would be much better. The mechanism would reward fast seeders with tokens, while those leeching files would automatically bid for a place in line, based on a fixed and uniform proportion of the total amount of the BitTorrent token held in the client. Over time, says Morris, wallet balances would become good indicators of the quality of a participant’s connection.
Of course, that mechanism means that someone with a poor connection could buy BitTorrent Token rather than earning it, and effectively jump the line by masquerading as a peer with a fast connection. But, says Morris, this would amount to a revenue stream for BitTorrent, while inflicting a relatively minor penalty on the efficiency of the overall system.
Morris says BitTorrent was well aware that most users aren’t likely to pay for their downloads. But users could opt out of the token system entirely, and still benefit from the increased efficiency—a point that Tron has continued to make as it explains its plans.
All of this is still plausible under Tron’s direction. It’s just not likely, according to Morris, that it will actually run on the Tron blockchain.
BitTorrent, of course, is decentralized for a reason. Since leaving BitTorrent (or, more precisely, since leaving Tron), Morris has spent his time reflecting on the lessons blockchain companies can learn about decentralization from the history of BitTorrent. One major point he makes is that “in spite of its incredibly disruptive influence on the media industry and the flood of illegal activity that it seems to have enabled, BitTorrent has proven to be unbelievably robust,” largely because it has no single legal or technical structure to attack.
If Morris’s assessments are correct, Tron’s BitTorrent Token might not share its namesake’s durability.
Update 1/12/19: Updated with comment from Tron.