Are engineers responsible for how people utilize their inventions? History is full of cases that can shed light on this question; however, two recent technologies have made it particularly salient. BitTorrent and Bitcoin have very different uses and technical underpinnings; however, both have been condemned for their illegal uses. Neither is inherently bad, but what responsibility falls on the engineer for those who are abusing these technologies?
The BitTorrent protocol was created by Bram Cohen in 2001 . Designed to decentralize information so that data can be distributed more quickly, the protocol breaks each file up into multiple pieces and sends different pieces to each user. The users then share the pieces with each other, reducing the load on the file's original distributor. This technique has been used to solve a number of different engineering problems. Both Facebook and Blizzard have leveraged it to deal with the problems that arise from working on a massive scale. Facebook needs to update thousands of servers all over the world with the latest code, so they use BitTorrent to speed up the process. Similarly, Blizzard uses it to send their game updates to the millions of players who want to download them on the update's release day.
These cases show the benefits of using Bittorrent in a legal way. However, BitTorrent has become more notorious for its illegal uses, primarily the sharing of copyrighted material. Expanding on the success of previous file sharing solutions Napster and Kazaa, BitTorrent quickly became one of the most popular ways to share copyrighted material on the internet. A recent study found that BitTorrent traffic once accounted for almost 60% of all internet traffic .
However, while many people love the ability to quickly download movies, music, and TV shows, some have taken issue with file sharing. In recent years, the movie and music industries have actively lobbied in Congress on issue of copyright infringement. And while BitTorrent does have many legal uses, one study found that of the 1,000 most popular torrent files, only three were non-infringing content .
Much of the controversy over BitTorrent has centered around The Pirate Bay, a Sweden-based BitTorrent search engine. While it does not create the illegal material, The Pirate Bay distributes links to torrents, most of which are of copyrighted content. Still, the website does not take down links to illegal material and flaunts its illegal nature. During the Beijing Olympics, The International Olympic Committee (IOC) asked the Swedish government to prevent clips from being distributed via the Pirate Bay . In response, not only did the Pirate Bay continue distributing Olympic content, they mockingly changed their logo to “The Beijing Bay” . In 2009, the case came to a head when they were sued for copyright infringement on a variety of movies, shows, and games . The founders of Pirate Bay were sentenced to one year in prison and fined 30 million Swedish kronor, which is $4.4 million . They appealed the decision to the Swedish Supreme Court but were ultimately found guilty in February 2012 .
In contrast to the founders of The Pirate Bay, Bram Cohen never faced legal issues, because his company never distributed links to unlicensed material. In response to a question about copyright issues, he stated
It’s completely legal to create technical solutions. The reason people get dragged into legal proceedings is that they break copyright laws, which I have never done.—Bram Cohen
Bitcoin, released as open-source software on January 3, 2009, is a distributed electronic currency designed and developed by Satoshi Nakamoto. Nakamoto is very likely a pseudonym, and his true identity is unknown . He left the project in 2010; however, even in his absence, Bitcoin has become a real currency that is used for a variety of purposes, both legal and illegal .
Bitcoin utilizes a proof-of-work system to mathematically ensure the scarcity of the currency. Computers "mine" Bitcoins by solving a series of increasingly hard problems. The first computer to solve the problem sends out a solution, which is exchanged for Bitcoins. This exchange rate varies over time. As more solutions are found, less Bitcoins are granted for each solution. These two constraints cap the total number of Bitcoins that can ever exist at 21 million . As of 2012, almost 9 million Bitcoins have been mined . The scarcity of Bitcoins stems from the expense of processing power. Not only does mining Bitcoins require powerful computers, those computers consume large amounts of energy. In fact, in Canada, the homes of several people mining Bitcoins were searched because they were consuming so much electricity that the police thought they must have been growing marijuana .
The biggest advantage of Bitcoin is that is decentralized; no authority can issue more Bitcoins . This makes inflation difficult, because the supply of Bitcoins in the market cannot arbitrarily be increased. This kind of certainty appeals to many people as it removes the control of governments from the currency. Unlike when using a bank, there are no service fees associated with Bitcoin, making it more profitable for businesses. Some brick-and-mortar stores have begun accepting Bitcoins for purchases  .
All Bitcoin transactions are inherently public. However, there is no information about why a transaction was made or who the transaction was made between. This anonymity makes Bitcoin the first untraceable electronic currency . The Silk Road is an anonymous marketplace which, much like eBay, allows users to buy and sell basically anything from each other. However, the Silk Road only accepts exchanges in Bitcoin and is hidden behind the Tor network . This means buyers and sellers can market illegal goods without the fear of being discovered by federal agencies. This has made the site very popular, and has allowed the sale of illegal drugs over the internet . Even if law enforcement agencies were to make fake postings to lure out buyers, because the transactions are anonymous and untraceable, it would be impossible to know who placed the order, regardless of the address to which it was sent.
In June 2011, senators Charles Schumer and Joe Manchin asked the Drug Enforcement Administration to launch a full-scale investigation into The Silk Road . Around the same time, a Gawker article in 2011 received over 175,000 Facebook likes and further brought attention to this issue, causing the exchange rate of Bitcoin to skyrocket . However, the distributed and antonymous nature of Bitcoin has made it difficult for the government to take any action against The Silk Road. During the summer of 2011, the exchange rate on Bitcoin skyrocketed to $30 per BTC . As of 2012, it has come down to be relatively stable at around $5 per BTC .
Professionalism and EthicsEdit
These two cases expose a core question in engineering ethics: are professional engineers responsible for what others do with their inventions? In the case of both BitTorrent and Bitcoin, the law comes down fairly clearly. Bram Cohen, the creator of BitTorrent, continues to run his company completely legally in the United States. He has never been accused of copyright infringement, and probably will never be. Cohen's company simply provides the BitTorrent technology and assists other companies in implementing it to legally solve engineering problems. On the other hand, the creators of The Pirate Bay received prison sentences and a massive fine from the Swedish government. The Pirate Bay crossed a legal line when they encouraged users to pirate copyrighted content by knowingly allowing them to post these illegal torrents. As we saw with the footage of the Beijing Olympics, even when asked to remove this content, they refused.
Similarly to Cohen, Nakamoto would likely not face legal action, even if his identity were known. However, the US government has publicly condemned The Silk Road, and, were it possible to do so, would certainly bring legal action against both its creators and users. Here we see the same legal line. Creating, mining, and transferring Bitcoin is thus far legal; however, knowingly allowing users to sell illegal goods with Bitcoin is a crime. However, the law is not the only guide for ethics, and it may sometimes be necessary to take a stronger stance than law requires.
It is difficult to fully condemn Cohen or Nakamoto, as they did not directly do any harm. These two cases also have a high amount of gray area; many would argue that neither piracy nor recreational drug use should be illegal. However, technology is very multipurpose and it would benefit engineers to consider in advance how their creations will be used. Ultimately, our guiding question, are professional engineers responsible for what others do with their inventions, is a personal one and must be answered individually. Hopefully these two cases can provide a starting point for that introspection.