Net Thief II

Continuing in my crime vein, this belated blog entry is about data theft. No, I’m not talking about stealing someone else’s work (that’s plagiarism) and I’m not talking about hacking into a database and stealing password. This is about bandwidth theft.

First off, what is bandwidth? Bandwidth is the amount of data sent between one computer to another. Pretty simple. The way it works is that when your computer calls out to the ‘net and asks for this page, the data on my server has to be sent back to your computer so you can store it on your hard drive (usually in a temp directory). The data is measured in bytes, and when you add it all up, that’s bandwidth. I pay for the bandwidth used when my server sends you data. You pay for the bandwidth you use by requesting and then receiving data. Most ISPs and web hosts will charge people if their bandwidth gets too high or if they go over the agreed maximum for the month.

Bandwidth theft is when you utilize someone else’s internet bandwidth without reimbursement. Normally this takes the form of ‘hotlinking’. Bandwidth is stolen when a person links directly to an image from someone else’s server. For example, look at that nice little Epstein Chop on the top left corner. On this site, if you check out our HTML, it’s linked as <IMG SRC=/images/chop.jpg> which means that it’s on MY server. If you linked to it as <IMG SRC=> that would be bandwidth theft.

(BTW, before you email me and ask why I’ve linked to <IMG SRC=> directly, the reason is because of how the sub-domains work. The site wasn’t really designed for them, so I had to make some tweaks, but I promise it’s all on the same server).

For what it’s worth, some webmasters don’t give a fuck if you use some of the images on their site, within reason. By in large, so long as the image in question isn’t copyrighted and you credit them as the source, webmasters are just fine with sharing. After all, the internet is a pretty free place, and the majority of the cool webmasters are pretty down with the fact that people will just take the images anyway. Personally, I don’t mind unless it’s original art. And since I don’t do a hell of a lot of woo-hoo image manipulation, it’s not really applicable to me.

All that said, when you directly link to someone else’s server (website) and use that image without copying it to your own server first, you are stealing bandwidth.

Bandwidth costs money, and it’s really not that complicated of a concept. It’s like having someone else use your phone for local calls. Sure, you don’t get charged for it per say, but over time, the more your local phone service is used, the more the phone company has to support it, and the more likely they are to raise rates.

Now, as a webmaster, I know how to protect myself!

If you’re evil, like me, you can do a couple other things besides the anti-link fix. One trick I used to use was to swap the image out for one they didn’t want. Say, porn! Replacing the hotlinked images with ones outing them as a bandwidth thief to something offensive can be fun, but you still lose bandwidth, so I take a more active role in my protection.

Once I moved to this server, I made a formidable effort to prevent bandwidth theft from this site and that other site I run. My first step is to find out who hotlinks to me. I use using the mod_setenvif Apache module. The other is to use the Mod Rewrite Engine (also Apache server). Both methods work, though not perfectly. You lose a little bandwidth and server processing to make the checks, but I’ve found both to be acceptable when compared with the amounts I was loosing to theft.

For what it’s worth, I do believe that a little bit of tolerance or maybe a gentle e-mail to the other site’s webmaster is an acceptable solution. I was doing that until some shit in Korea pegged my other server for 8 gigs of data in a day. One day. I ended up having to have my ISP block them. That was an extreme case. Most people were very understanding when I talked to them, but the problem was that I wasn’t able to keep up with the number of hotlinkers.

Part of this problem is from the recent explosion in message boards. Message boards on the net used to be more like usenet, or the old board system. That was the only way we all had of talking en masse. There were MUSHes and such that kept us chatting real time, and IRC, so don’t go thinking it was all tragic. But really a lot of this was plain text based. Many of us ‘old timers’ still prefer that method of interaction. The screens were small, the interface simple, and you didn’t lose a lot of desktop real estate to the GUI.

Now-a-days, online message boards are a dime a dozen, and your possibilities are limited only by imagination and gasp bandwidth. See, with these new, pretty boards (my favorite today is YaBBSE, and it would be YaBB but I like the PHP+SQL better than the Perl) you get Avatars (little icons that show ‘you’), fancy sig lines with Flash (and that’s a security hole right there!), the ability to ‘attach’ files to your post, and the very basic linking of an image inside your post. Whew. And when those net newbies make a link to an image, do you think they care about where it’s from? Only if the image breaks.

The bottom line: Misusing someone else’s bandwidth could result in you being sued.. If the image isn’t on your server, leave it alone.

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