Monday, December 13, 2004

"In Praise of P2P"

Economist (12/02/04) Vol. 373, No. 8404, P. 35

Peer-to-peer (P2P) networking technology is the Internet evolved, say proponents who also worry about legal concerns. The music recording industry has already successfully shut down Napster and is currently lobbying to outlaw P2P technology; movie and music firms have also asked the Supreme Court to hold P2P software firms liable for copyright infringement committed using their products; and the Justice Department has suggested P2P networks could be used by terrorists. Yet P2P innovation continues as small firms and open-source groups develop more uses, including super-efficient voice calls, workplace collaboration, and distributed data storage. P2P networks are actually closer to what the Internet was intended to be--a network of equal peers that was not reliant on centralized services. The Internet today is more like "television with packets" with a hub-and-spoke distribution system, says technology consultant Clay Shirky. P2P traffic consumes a huge amount of Internet resources, some of it legal but most of it for illegally shared copyrighted works. P2P network-services firm CacheLogic estimates that more than half of all Internet traffic is actually P2P activity, and that the BitTorrent application alone makes up 35 percent of all Internet traffic; BitTorrent is an open-source program that up-ends many traditional assumptions about the Internet, including the idea that popularity means bandwidth penalties. With BitTorrent, users pass around small pieces of large files in a system called swarming, and users that share more content are rewarded with faster connections. Meanwhile, many legal P2P distribution services are emerging, including LionShare, a Penn State University program for globally distributing academic information; Red Swoosh, a network set up to legal distribute copyrighted content; and the Internet Archive, a non-profit Internet archive of digital content that uses five P2P systems to manage bandwidth efficiently and inexpensively.