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Monday, March 7, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 a.m.

Progressive peek at TV's Web potential

E-conomy / Paul Andrews

For all the news about phone companies, cable providers and Web portals bringing television to the Internet, a new Seattle-based Web service is helping provide an early glimpse of what TV could look like on the Web.

Although only a few weeks old and still in beta, is drawing on powerful new downloading, indexing and newsfeed technology under an activist agenda to help independent audio, video and other media find wider distribution and their natural audience. Go to the site and you find all kinds of content, from "The Daily Show" clips of Jon Stewart monologues to "Democracy Now" broadcasts.

"We want to be a resource for politically left people and community-based organizations," said Jeff Reifman, a former Microsoft manager who works at, a Web-tools builder for nonprofits. He helped put together CommonBits.

Any legal or fair-use content, including Seattle-based events and gatherings, is appropriate for CommonBits, Reifman says. But it needs to fit CommonBits' philosophy and will be screened to meet the service's goals.

Once the subscription capabilities of podcasting and RSS are incorporated in tandem with tagging, CommonBits registrants will automatically be notified of content meeting specific interests. Check out environmental attorney Thomas Linzey's recent Seattle talk on the site at

Reifman compares the process to "TiVo for the desktop PC. CommonBits will provide a channel of content for political progressives."

The power of video to document and astound — witness the amateur clips of the tsunami — is unrivaled. Once video is as easily downloaded and viewed via a PC as flipping on the boob tube, the definition of TV gets turned upside down — the same way print, music and radio are being deconstructed by the Internet.

The key to CommonBits' approach lies in a new file-sharing technology called BitTorrent. Video can burden servers, eat up bandwidth costs and still deliver subpar playback. BitTorrent cleverly solves the bandwidth bottleneck while at the same time protecting users from the petri-dish spyware and scams of typical file-sharing services. And you can wind up with DVD-quality video instead of the typical checker-sized viewing window.

The product of Bram Cohen, a programmer now based in Bellevue, BitTorrent is getting a black eye from the entertainment industry for its use as a distribution mechanism for commercial films. But as shows, BitTorrent's implications go far beyond movie-swapping.

The CommonBits approach turns BitTorrent technology into something resembling an Internet broadcast network: liberal radio and TV on demand.

As for copyright issues, Reifman hopes they can be circumvented through permission and fair use. CommonBits is an early example of a "repository" Web service accepting uploads, screening them and offering them to a select community using BitTorrent. While CommonBits has a liberal bent, its approach in principle would work for any would-be Web aggregator of audio-visual content. Conservatives could just as easily set up a similar site. In fact, any constituency — hobbyist groups, neighborhoods, event-based organizations — with video and other media content could use the CommonBits model.

With everyone from Yahoo! and Microsoft to Verizon and Qwest looking to get into Internet TV, the fear is that the Web will simply turn standard TV content into Internet downloads.

With CommonBits, the intent is to provide otherwise inaccessible content to Internet "viewers." Ultimately its contribution may have as much to do with enabling fans to obtain stuff they ordinarily wouldn't know about or couldn't access as it does with surmounting the bandwidth bottleneck.

Paul Andrews is a freelance technology writer and co-author of "Gates." He can be reached at

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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