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Anti-piracy misfire takes down online TV network

May 30, 2008|Joseph Menn | Times Staff Writer

One of the most popular Internet-based television networks was shut down all weekend, a casualty in the entertainment industry's fight against pirated material.

The outage at Revision3, which features shows such as "Diggnation" and others targeted at techies, highlighted the risks of serious collateral damage in the usually invisible but bare-knuckled technological war between copyright holders and pirates.

The victimized company said Thursday that the culprit was MediaDefender Inc., a Santa Monica firm that distributes fake music and video files on the Internet in order to fight piracy. The shutdown resembled the denial-of-service attacks often used by cyber-criminals and other malicious hackers, but Revision3 and MediaDefender said the outage was accidental.

The outage demonstrated the pluses and minuses of Internet television. It hit not long after Friday's weekly post of new episodes of the two most popular shows, "Diggnation" and "Tekzilla," foiling some weekend viewers. Even though Web shows are less reliable than conventional TV, they are archived and available on demand, so viewers who miss an episode can easily watch it later.

Computers at San Francisco-based Revision3, which attracts more than 4 million video views a month, began getting overwhelmed with Internet traffic midday Saturday and were mostly down until the middle of Tuesday, Chief Executive Jim Louderback said in an interview.

The onslaught kept users from getting to the ad-supported site and cut off employees from their own e-mail, Louderback said.

Such denial-of-service attacks aren't unheard of, and Revision3 initially suspected that people pirating copyrighted material were responsible. That's because the overwhelming flood of requests to connect to Revision3's network were fielded by a company computer that was using the BitTorrent content-distribution system to locate all manner of files, including Revision3's shows and copyrighted material stored elsewhere.

BitTorrent is often used to share copyrighted movies, TV shows and music without permission.

But in a bizarre twist, it turned out that anti-piracy forces were to blame. Louderback said about 90% of the connection requests that crippled the company came from machines controlled by MediaDefender, which is owned by publicly traded ArtistDirect Inc., a promoter of independent bands.

MediaDefender has been criticized for a controversial tactic: It places bogus files on peer-to-peer systems to frustrate people seeking movies, computer programs and MP3s of songs. Its clients include major record labels and movie studios.

MediaDefender CEO Randy Saaf said he was still looking into what went wrong.

After Revision3 contacted Saaf's company, it stopped sending the connection requests and users could once again watch Revision3 shows, including "Diggnation," a spinoff of the Digg news-sharing website.

Saaf said that Revision3's BitTorrent tracker was a well-known guidepost for pirates and that MediaDefender had been planting misleading information there for months.

But Saaf said that his company had no problem with Revision3 as a whole and that the shutdown resulted from technical glitches on one or both sides.

Many Internet television companies, along with more traditional media producers, use BitTorrent to save money in distributing their material online. Louderback, a former editor in chief of PC Magazine, said Revision3's copy of the tracking software was initially configured to spread only company-produced video.

But that setup was unstable, so a few months ago a Revision3 staffer began allowing the tracker to help searchers find any sort of file.

When Revision3 noticed pointers to copyright-protected works appearing last week, it changed again and installed a "white-list," blocking all traffic except that coming from a list of approved computers.

That's when MediaDefender's system went haywire, Louderback said. When MediaDefender's attempts to connect and plant misleading information were spurned, it began trying constantly. The thousands of requests per second crashed Revision3's network.

"Normal behavior, if you don't get a response, is you wait a while," Louderback said. "At the very least, it was a pretty poor implementation and pretty grossly negligent. What if these computers had been at a hospital?"

Saaf said such a problem had never occurred before, and he suggested that Revision3 might have made its own technical misstep.

But if the case is isolated, it's unfortunate for MediaDefender that Revision3 was the victim.

"Diggnation" and other Revision3 shows are popular among technologists who already dislike MediaDefender. And stories that mention "Diggnation" or Digg tend to show up high in Digg's rankings.

A blog post about the situation by Louderback was the highest-rated Digg story on Thursday evening, with many of the hundreds of comments encouraging Revision3 to sue.

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joseph.menn@latimes.com

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