Several billboards that appeared in New York, L.A., and outside of San Francisco over the past few weeks caught a lot of attention recently. The Los Angeles Times explained that "guessing the identity of the organization or person behind the sign[s]" was a "favorite parlor game" in Silicon Valley. And the signs, which read things like, "Your data should belong to the NSA," "The Internet should be regulated," and "Artists need to play by the rules," did receive a lot of speculation: the Times wondered if it was the NSA itself, or venture capitalist Michael Arrington, or the "Billboard Liberation Front." NPR wondered, but didn't guess, just noting that "No one knows who paid for it." California State Senator Ted Lieu tweeted his support for a message he read as "highlighting NSA abuses."
Yesterday, the entity responsible for the billboards finally signed its work—and changed the message. It was BitTorrent, the company behind the technology that allows for peer-to-peer transfer of large files. The messages were adapted to read, "The Internet should be people-powered," "Artists need options," and "Your data should belong to you."
According to Matt Mason, BitTorrent's VP of marketing, the billboards were a unique opportunity for the company to both advance a conversation it's been interested in having for a long time, and to change some perceptions about what, exactly, it stands for. It's the latest in the company's recent high-profile projects—last month the company partnered with Vice and Madonna on the artist's Secretprojectrevolution film.
"Everybody thinks that we're behind copyright infringement, and all these other things we have nothing to do with," Mason explains to Co.Create. "So we wanted to set up what we were against, and what we were about, in a fun way. The big idea was, 'Let's just put some statements up in public that we disagree with, and that we know other people are thinking about when it comes to the future of the Internet, and how we store data and how privacy works online.' These are big conversations, and after the whole PRISM scandal, it seemed like this was the right time to talk to people about what we believe."
Mason and the rest of the BitTorrent team were thrilled with the reaction they got from the press, the industry, and the politician who tweeted his support. And they see the resulting conversation as a chance to educate people on why BitTorrent has a role in the future of the Internet. "We've always believed that doing things without servers was a really cool way of doing stuff. The problem is that the American public didn't know what a server was," Mason laughs. "That all changed after the NSA scandal."
"We realized that this was probably a good time to talk about all of the things we're doing, including what we're doing to change the future of digital content," Mason went on to say, explaining how the company tried to balance a marketing message with a conversation starter. "We can talk about sharing information without servers that people can look at, and have a broader conversation about Internet regulations. The three statements were designed to make people stop and think and react to, and have a public discussion. We were really pleased to see so much discussion. What we really wanted to see was the social media discussion about, 'Hell no, the Internet shouldn't be regulated!' Or some people thought that it should be regulated, and that's a discussion to have, too. We saw all these discussions happen because of these billboards."
As a result of the billboards, and the subsequent conversation, Mason is hopeful that the perception of BitTorrent might shift a bit. The company's technology is frequently used in piracy, but by putting its name behind a popular message—and one that gets to the core of the company's principles—they feel like they have the chance to establish the company's identity in a way that more accurately reflects what they're really about.
"We were nervous yesterday when we changed the statements, and signed them 'Bittorrent.' We didn't know what to expect from this wider audience that we really haven't engaged with before on this scale," he said. "We were really pleased to see that people got it instantly, and that we were setting ourselves up as a different technology company, which is really all we're trying to be."