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News NetworkAre P2P File Sharing Networks Dead?

Are P2P File Sharing Networks Dead?

By Billy Moffat (07/05/2012)2092 words
Tagged: editorial, law, news, technology, torren

Are peer to peer file sharing networks dead or are they about to evolve into something else?

To declare the peer to peer file sharing networks to be anything other than thriving is ludicrous. In the last few months, peer to peer file sharing networks have gained considerable notoriety in the more general media. This is mostly due to increased levels of resistance they are receiving from governments, lobby groups and international trade agreements. Despite the great push to prevent these platforms through the guise of counter-piracy, these measures are ultimately fruitless. To understand why, it's important to understand how peer to peer file sharing has evolved, how it operates as a complex independent supply chain, and how limiting its use would require restrictions and laws that are arguably worse than the problem of piracy itself. Essentially, to understand the future it's most helpful to analyse the past.

The first generation flagships of peer to peer sharing (also known as P2P), Napster and Kazaa have long been shut down. As ABC News (2001) pointed out, it wasn't even clear at the time if services like Napster were infringing on intellectual property, noting "Napster argued that personal copying of music is protected by federal law". These services still exist today as legitimate online stores for music and other multimedia, not dissimilar to Apple's iTunes service. While they were shut down permanently after relatively little time, these services pioneered the paradigm of sharing files over the internet.

The main reason that Napster (and other services like it) failed was due to the centralised system that bundled the unfiltered search engine with the software that uploaded and downloaded the data. This made it easy to prosecute Napster for the intentional and willing loss of revenue to the recording industries. Unlike the networks of today, there was little chance for the owners of Napster to claim it was merely a legitimate service with negative consequences.

The second generation of P2P was mostly centred on the wildly popular Gnutella network. This protocol gained traction after the death of Napster and rose very quickly to nearly two million active users in 2005. By late 2007, the Gnutella network - with Limewire as its software client poster child - had over 40% of the file sharing "market".

Originally an open-source project, Limewire had many forks (i.e. groups branching an existing code-base to make a new, similar program) that spawned other sharing clients operating within the same Gnutella network. This method of de-cetralisation was the key to preventing an immediate closure from the legal threats of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). While the search engine was still relatively integrated and centralised, the open-source nature of the project coupled with the large number of alternative clients and shadow backups of the Gnutella index meant that the eventual death of Limewire wasn't the end.

Limewire was officially shut down in October 2010. While the Gnutella network is no longer the de-facto protocol for P2P, it is still widely used today, due to many of the open source clients it spawned. There is even a "Limewire Pirate Edition" that was made freely and publicly available within a month of Limewire's demise, complete with all of Limewire's features. It's difficult to attribute the significant drop in usage of the Gnutella network to the take-down of Limewire, or the rise of the superior torrent system. While P2P has taken many forms since its inception, by far the most common and powerful today is the Bittorrent network.

The Bittorrent network is a heavily versatile protocol that offers many advantages, standing on the shoulders of what fell before it. On its own, the software client is completely legal and has no inherent infringement on copyright. This means that torrent clients can be easily distributed publicly on the internet without any fear of prosecution. Some are open-source, some are free (but ad-supported), and some (similar to Limewire) even charge money for "pro" features (such as µTorrent Pro).

Some torrent clients have search functionality, but the results are taken from third-party websites. Because of this, torrent clients can claim complete immunity for any infringement that takes place with their software because of their independent structure. This is the same way that Microsoft isn't liable if people use Windows Media Player to view pirated movies, or Google isn't liable if their search engine is used to find tutorials on how to create a home-made bomb. This freedom from the law means that it can actually be easier and faster to install the software required to use the full power of the Bittorrent network, than a web browser.

Since there is no centralised search engine, third party websites are needed to host torrent files. These files are de-centralised from the content themselves in that they only contain meta-data about the location of the content. Since the torrent files only contain online location addresses and other descriptive information and not the content themselves, torrent files are usually quite small and manageable to store in large volumes. There is significant ambiguity over whether torrent files themselves are illegal if they contain links to copyrighted material. Many countries are yet to make a definitive ruling. Most torrent files are around 100KB in size (About.com). On modern internet connections, this would take less than one second to download.

In short, sharing files using the Bittorrent network is done with four parties. The host servers (such as zoink or torrentz) store torrent files that point to trackers (starting points for finding connections). The search engines (such as The Pirate Bay, Isohunt, or a custom search in Google) allow users to find these torrent files based on keywords. The Bittorrent client (such as Vuse, µTorrent or Transmission) uses the information in the torrent file to connect the user to trackers, and then peers and seeds to download parts of the files where available. Finally, the seeders (which are other users that connect to the internet like the average consumer) keep stored copies of the requested files on their hard drives and upload (also known as seeding) to people who request it. Users who have downloaded the finished files (or even incomplete files) are able to become seeders themselves, giving back by uploading (sharing) what they have almost immediately. To get this intricate system in place, a lot of technology, programming, evolution and construction have gone into developing the Bittorrent network to be as resilient, de-centralised, and easy as possible.

Due to the nature of how sharing operates on the Bittorrent network, there is no single server, location, company, group or person that can be removed from the network to shut it down. There is no centralised leader or bottleneck in the Bittorrent network, and this makes it difficult, if not impossible, to adequately regulate or police. Generally the weakest link, both legally and physically in the supply chain of the Bittorrent network is the series of independent, but centralised, servers that host the torrent files. This is because they host incredibly large volumes of torrent files that are tagged with names (which in many cases show that the files are intended to contain intellectual property). These servers often contain login information for users that upload torrent files, and can possibly store IP address logs for visiting traffic. As such; they are usually the best targets of any legal action.

Prominent torrent search engine The Pirate Bay has been raided multiple times and had its servers seized (only to be restored to full operation less than a week later). Isohunt was forced to modify its search algorithm to be more of a general search engine (like Google) for US users (though still remains a functional torrent search engine depending on the IP address of the user). Mininova, arguably the most popular torrent site at the time, was shut down in 2009 in a similar manner to Isohunt. The Pirate Bay is blocked (in some form) in over 13 countries, including the UK, and people affiliated with the creation and management of the site have been found guilty in the Swedish courts of breaching intellectual property on a mass scale. Despite the attention, The Pirate Bay remains open and fully-functional with the slogan "The galaxy's most resilient Bittorrent site".

Piracy is getting increasing attention from legislators as lobby groups like the MPAA and RIAA push for increased censorship provisions to fight sharing on the internet. These measures have all failed to reduce the activity of file sharing networks. In the month that the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was to be voted upon - a piece of US legislation that was deemed so destructive that many major websites including Wikipedia blacked-out in protest - the Bittorrent network boasted over 150 million users. This is a 400% increase from the level of activity in 2008. There are an estimated quarter of a billion monthly active users, with consistently high rates of growth.

With the boost in usage on the Bittorrent network, lobby groups supporting SOPA argued that there have been multiple studies into the revenue loss to the economy as a result of piracy. While piracy is clearly a concern for the revenue streams of multimedia companies, there is evidence to suggest there is a gross exaggeration. According to IT World (Fogarty 2012), the figures quoted are usually around $250 billion loss of revenue and 750,000 jobs lost per year. After Julian Sanchez challenged the validity (and existence) of these studies, the MPAA eventually dropped their estimate of global revenue loss to $6.1 billion, based on another study that couldn't be found. A Government Accountability Office Report (GOA, 2010) sided with Sanchez in estimating that at least 80% of pirated content wouldn't have been purchased if the price wasn't essentially free. This pushes the estimated figure well below a billion. Regardless of which amount is closer to the truth, there is extreme support behind the closure of torrent sites to prevent revenue loss from piracy.

Despite the incredible pressure facing torrent sites, there is a way to decentralise the distribution of torrent files even further to remove the large legal target. Magnet links are a type of protocol over a decade old, but have only relatively recently become widely used for P2P sharing. A magnet link is a type of hyperlink that lets a user download a torrent file from the peers and seeds. The magnet link is a 32-bit string that represents the SHA-1 hash of the torrent file. Given this, modern torrent clients can connect to the swarm and retrieve the torrent file without going through a centralised server.

Notorious torrent site The Pirate Bay has pioneered a shift in the way Bittorrent operates. Beginning March 2012, the website stopped hosting torrent files. All downloads from the site are processed using magnet links. This means the entire database (millions of different torrent files that take up millions of gigabytes of files) can be compressed into a 90MB file. This has already led to many mirror sites (as opposed to proxy servers) giving access to The Pirate Bay's database to those in countries where it's otherwise unavailable. The transition for all torrent sites and clients to move to magnet-only configurations won't be quick, but once completed, will ensure that the Bittorrent network will become even more difficult - and theoretically impossible - to control. Future legislation such as the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), and trade agreements like the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) could restrict the widespread nature of file sharing, but restricting P2P without damaging the mainstream internet will be a challenge that governments worldwide will need to address.

Peer to peer file sharing has evolved from basic, legally-oblivious beginnings to an underworld sub-culture hiding under the radar, to one of the largest public ecosystems on the internet. It's continually evolving and as recently as this month, taking significant steps to become the ultimate source of decentralized information. The extreme growth in popularity of the Bittorrent network shows that as long as P2P is plausible, it will be popular. Despite the legal and lobbyist attention that has exploded in the last few years toward the piracy behind file sharing, no reasonable measures have dented the flow of data. With the recent steps being led by sites such as The Pirate Bay, it is clear that unless the world's governments mutually agree to police the internet and its people to an Orwellian extreme; the only way to kill peer to peer file sharing is to destroy the internet itself.

Author - Billy Moffat (thumbnail)
Author - Billy Moffat
Owner and sole developer of Meercat9.com, he attends university full time but has a passionate addiction to the internet, particularly programming. Due to the lack of other developers for the site, he is often forced to write about himself in the third person.