Whiz kid inventor Bram Cohen and a small cadre of developers and entrepreneurs are in the final stage of launching an advertising-supported search engine dedicated to cataloging and indexing the thousands of movies, music tracks, software programs and other files for download over Cohen’s popular BitTorrent protocol.

The free search tool will be the first large-scale commercial offering from BitTorrent, a five-person company headed by Cohen that so far has drawn most of its revenue from T-shirt sales and PayPal donations.

The ranked search results will be accompanied by sponsored links provided through a partnership with Oakland, California, company Ask Jeeves, says Ashwin Navin, BitTorrent’s chief operating officer. BitTorrent will make money from each clickthrough. “Ask Jeeves syndicates our advertising products to many different sites, and BitTorrent will be one of them,” confirmed Ask Jeeves spokeswoman Darcy Cobb.

Navin demonstrated the service for Wired News last week at BitTorrent’s temporary headquarters, a small, one-room San Francisco office shared with Navin’s last venture, an import/export firm called GSI Group. Surrounded by pallets of imported playing cards and poker chips, Navin fired up a browser on his laptop and typed “Mozilla” into the BitTorrent search box. The search quickly produced a site offering torrents for the free browser.

The search engine is expected to go live within two weeks, according to Navin, who is moving to the Bay Area from Bellevue, Washington. It will live on BitTorrent, the website from which Cohen distributes the open-source software that has changed the way netizens distribute and connect with content online.

BitTorrent speeds internet file transfers by shifting the bandwidth burden off the publisher, and distributing it among users downloading the file: Everyone downloading a file over BitTorrent is unobtrusively uploading it to other users at the same time so that large, popular files actually move at a faster rate than obscure ones.

The new search engine takes that dynamic into account. It resembles Google in operation, with a simple interface and results ranked by an automated process. But unlike a general web search, the BitTorrent web crawler interacts with each torrent behind the scenes to determine the number of nodes downloading and uploading through it. That lets the search engine order its results by the throughput of each torrent.

“Web search rates things by relevance,” says Navin, a former strategist for Yahoo. “Our search rates things by relevance and availability.”

Although BitTorrent has become associated with online piracy thanks to its role in distributing copyright movies and television shows, the company is eager to highlight its utility as a completely lawful program for furthering free speech. That’s the vision that drives the company, says Navin — now anyone can publish their own movies, music or software, because BitTorrent all but eliminates expensive bandwidth costs.

Last week, Cohen released a new beta version of the official BitTorrent software that makes the process even easier by giving users the option of skipping the complicated step of setting up a special tracker to manage BitTorrent transactions. “This is indicative of our hope that BitTorrent will enable more independent web publishing,” says Navin.

But, of course, that’s not all BitTorrent enables. At a reporter’s request, Navin ran “The Interpreter” through the search engine, and the top result was an illicit copy of the Nicole Kidman film — still in theaters — offered on The Pirate Bay, a torrent aggregator in Sweden known for making pirated movies, music and software freely available in open defiance of publishers.

By Kevin Poulsen

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