Peter Sunde: Next Big Project from the World’s Most Hated Entrepreneur

Peter SundePeter Sunde Is About to Destroy This Industry

For most people, the name Peter Sunde is not exactly a household one, but maybe it should be.

Sunde is the founder of Pirate Bay, the original and No. 1 site for access to “direction files” (a.k.a., torrent files) pinpointing where you can connect with individuals who believe that, once they purchase a piece of music or a film, they can share it with whomever they like—including you, should you also hold that whimsical belief.

This sounds like a simple statement but in fact, it is much more complicated than it appears.

For one thing, as the original “pirate” site, it would be an understatement to point out that Pirate Bay and its founder each have a target on their back. The fact that the site is still active as this is written—some 13 years after it began—is a testament to the obstinacy of Sunde and his crew. Every time a court in a particular jurisdiction issues an order to take down the site or seize the IP address, Sunde amazingly manages to resurrect it somewhere else, usually within hours. This is the stuff of Internet legends.

It is not clear whether Sunde himself has actually gotten rich because of his brainchild. It is clear, however, that he has made some good money running it. Yet, on the other hand, he has also served real prison time for being the chief cook and bottle washer of Pirate Bay, and you have to consider that fact carefully before nominating him for any businessman of the year awards or using him as a role model. (Source: “The Pirate Bay,” Wikipedia, last accessed May 4, 2016.)

Pirating: Not as Clear-Cut as It Seems?

Nor should one dismiss the so-called pirating phenomenon.

Like any modern phenomenon, the issue has two sides.

On the one hand, you have the so-called content owners who rely 100% on a century-old system of assorted and often contradictory copyright laws for their indignation (and damage claims). “The law is clear,” they say, “our content can only be exhibited or distributed where and when we say. End of story.” “Get in our way and we will crush you like a bug,” they say. Even though Sunde’s site, like its many imitators, neither charges for the information it dispenses nor stores any actual content on its servers. All it does is provide digital directions to other individual users willing to offer files (using special software designed just for that purpose).

For another, the entire copyright argument is not quite as clear-cut as it first appears. For one thing, on a purely legal basis, copyright law is astoundingly vague on the whole issue of sharing.

Think of a library, an institution that society has enjoyed since the time of Ancient Greece. For literally millennia, it has been accepted that works placed in a library, if properly obtained initially, can be shared person-to-person. So, the argument goes, if hard-copy works can be shared, why not digital ones too…?

Then you have what lawyers like to call equitable issues. That is a fancy way of referring to facts or situations which, while not determinative of a legal issue on their own, are nonetheless something that judges like to at least consider when pondering a case.

In this instance there are a few equitable issues that spring quickly to mind:

* The present copyright system is not only a century old, but it is also archaic, outdated, and dysfunctional. This ancient system is the reason, for example, that thousands of Canadians using Netflix have tried desperately to sign onto the system from spoofed U.S. IPs—using virtual private networks (VPNs), or the equivalent. Because they have discovered, to their horror, that even though they pay the same monthly fee as their U.S. counterparts, they have access quantitatively to only about half the content and qualitatively, to only a tiny fraction of the high-demand “good” titles. (Source: “Netflix: A Truly Canadian Problem,” CBC, January 1, 2016.)

* Never known for their subtlety, the copyright holders have decided to fight back against piracy by hiring third-party bounty hunters or “copyright trolls.” Once these stalwart individuals track a possibly pirated work to an identifiable IP address, they then send threatening letters to the registered user of that address—regardless of whether said user was actually involved in any piracy—demanding immediate cash or, they say, they will go to court for thousands of dollars more than the initial settlement request. (Source: “82-Year-Old Great-Grandmother Is a Pirate, Trolls Say,” TorrentFreak, February 12, 2016.)

* These copyright trolls (bounty hunters) are not known for their subtlety either. In one single 24-hour period, one particular troll sent more than 2.0 million complaint notices—alleging individual subscriber theft—to Verizon, the well-known U.S. Internet provider. That single day’s action crashed Verizon’s system. (Source: “Piracy Notices Crash Verizon Server,” TorrentFreak, May 5, 2016.)

Pirating Has Made the World a Better Place?

Interestingly, if we take the high road and step back to look at the bigger picture, pirate sites like Sunde’s have arguably been good for society as a whole. Consider the following:

* As I have explained in a prior essay, years ago, when Apple was in trouble, the late Steve Jobs personally revamped all advertising for the company to emphasize that Apple computers and laptops, right out of the box, were ready and able to create music CDs containing MP3-formatted songs.

(The average CD can hold about 130 songs in the compressed MP3 format, whereas a normal CD, using the pre-MP3 formatting, can hold about 25. This was a very significant move at the time! Virtually every other computer manufacturer on the planet missed the boat, making Apple machines the No. 1 choice for music burning at that juncture. Not even computer historians seem to have noticed that, for this gambit to work—and it did!—at the time, tens of thousands of Apple users would have had to have been constantly pirating music for their libraries daily! Of course, this success led Apple to the “iPod,” which then led to the “iPhone.” The rest, as they say, is history—and it’s still taught in business schools, even now.)

* Because both he and his firm were so closely linked to the file-sharing community—as just explained—Jobs is now generally acknowledged to have been the key power-broker behind the re-negotiating of traditional copyright practices at the corporate level, and thereby opened the door to the streaming media markets that we know and love today—“iTunes,” the “Apple Store,” Hulu, “YouTube Premium,” and Netflix come to mind, along with many others.

The Next Big Thing from Peter Sunde…?

So, having covered Sunde’s unique background, one question pops up: what is Peter Sunde doing now?

The simple answer is this: Sunde has declared war on adverting as we know it. He has founded a firm named Flattr—essentially, a voluntary pay-as-you-go system that Internet surfers can use to “reward” their favorite sites with small but regular amounts of cash.

Sunde just recently announced that this new firm will be doing a joint venture with Adblock Plus to entrench an alternative mechanism of surfing the net without being exposed to the daily onslaught of banner ads, click ads, pop-up ads, animated ads, and text ads urging you to jump to yet another site for more info.

(Adblock is, itself, an interesting venture. It was developed by a company called Eyeo GmbH, although its estimated 50.0 million users would most likely recognize the software’s name quite readily but not the company’s name. Adblock appeared on the scene about a decade ago, offering a completely free add-on for browsers like “Chrome” and “Firefox.” Once installed correctly, some 99% of the ads you would normally see while Internet surfing simply disappeared into the ether. Word of mouth being what it is, one user told another, who told another, and today tens of millions of Internet surfers use the add-on. Which, needless to say, has really ticked off businesses that develop Internet advertising—banners, click-throughs, etc.—almost as much as pirate sites have ticked off copyright owners!)

So, as you might guess, Pirate Bay and Adblock at least have this in common: Enemies and lots of them. It also helps that Sunde, on a personal level, passionately hates ads. In other words, “he never met an ad he liked.” And that is quite a feat considering that most of Pirate Bay’s revenue comes from ads!

(According to Internet legend, when Sunde was released from his most recent period of incarceration, he commented that the worst thing about prison was having to watch the ads on the community televisions. He had been a PVR user for years, and routinely skipped through the ads when watching TV at home. He felt that advertising had, over the years, become worse—louder and more intent on messing with your head—than he had remembered it. (Source: “In Prison You Become Brain Dead – Peter Sunde,” The Guardian, November 5, 2014.)

Will Flattr Fly?

Full details on the new venture—to be called “Flattr Plus”—are yet to be released. The core idea is that users wishing to be spared the horror of Internet advertising will make regular and small donations to a central fund. In return, site owners who voluntarily remove ads from their sites to improve the quality of the user experience will be eligible to receive regular payments from the fund. (Source: “Pirate Bay Founder Aims to Disrupt Ad Industry,” TorrentFreak, May 3, 2016.)

Obviously, there are many details yet to be worked out. Without enough users, for example, there is no incentive for any site to remove the ads; and without first-adopters on the net side, there will be no sites eligible to actually receive the money? Nor is it clear if a user’s favorite “ad minimized” site will qualify for funding if it does not first register with the venture.

Nonetheless, Sunde, like most visionaries, is not a man to be taken lightly.

Years ago, when no one else did, he saw an Internet where users had a lot more choice about precisely what they could see, and precisely when they could see it. That Internet vision has, in fact, arrived!

Now, Peter Sunde sees an Internet that is not constantly trying to manipulate and brainwash you during your surfing experience. Who is to say that this too shall not come to pass?

Image source: Flickr; Image copyright 2012, SHARE Conference