What is P2P?
As communication techniques improved in terms of speed, memory and accessibility, users began to find ways of sharing digital documents, music and entertainment files, and other materials through peer-to-peer file sharing(P2P). P2P is a networking situation in which “peers” are connected to each other with an Internet connection. Files can be shared directly between systems without the need of a central service since each computer on a P2P network becomes a file server and client both. Once connected, P2P software allows individuals to search files on other computers, and allows others to search for files on your computer – usually a designated folder. Based on technological improvements, P2P sharing has become easier and more sophisticated, which has led to software piracy (sharing software without paying for it), and music and video downloads. Below is an interesting video that provides us with a brief history of P2P sharing and highlights Napster, one of the most recognizable names in the P2P community:
There are a number of advantages to P2P sharing: P2P networks are more flexible because there is no central server failure, the networks increase in efficiency when more individuals use them – as opposed to central servers that slow down; and P2P file sharing is very efficient in terms of cost (no server administration, vast storage, network monitoring). P2P sharing is so easy that in 2004 about 70 million people globally were using online file sharing; this figure doubled by 2009, and is actually more popular in the developing world with lower income levels and less access to new music or video services (e.g. Africa, certain parts of Asia). Typically, information is distributed by torrent files (BitTorrent), which contains metadata and a list of the network locations of trackers, which are computers that help participants in the system find each other and form efficient distribution groups called swarms.
Ethics and Controversies
In many ways, P2P sharing is one of the most controversial activities surrounding Internet usage. The view from music and video companies is that their material is copyrighted and thus the only “legal” way of “using” the product is to purchase it. The Music and Film industry believe that P2P sharing costs them $12.5-24 billion annually and millions of jobs globally. Studies estimate that P2P sharing may actually impact the software, music and video industries by raising the piracy rates on popular items up to 25% or more, which causes prices to increase for all users.
In the United States, 10-15% of the population over the age of 12 said they had downloaded at least one feature length movie from the internet; and a European study showed that 75% of those 18-20 thought it was fine to download files, even if officially illegal to do so. The issue has become so contentious that even scholars are debating the legal and ethical controversies of P2P sharing. One view is that P2P is a natural evolution of sharing information – one cannot put limits on what information will and will not be shared through outdated copyright laws that are decades out of date (meaning they were put into place long before P2P networks had sufficiently evolved). Technology has changed, and those born after 1990 are both comfortable and used to the idea of file sharing . Instead, rather than bringing legal action against P2P users, some law professors believe that the industry should explore other kinds of file-sharing models that would be easier for consumers to use and afford. Yes, this view argues, artistsand companies need to recoup costs, but if cost-effective solutions were offered, consumers would be more likely to purchase a song or movie for a small fee than steal copies.
Many young people also do not understand the legalities and economics of the production of art content – that performers, authors and actors survive based on their residual fees from the artistic work they do. In addition, many do not understand that P2P situations expose individuals to viruses, Trojans and the loss of privacy (as well as private documents, information etc).
Times Have Changed
Technological evolution has changed society; file sharing is now a part of the global Internet world – an aspect of open communications. Sharing of information results in a more knowledgeable population, and is integrally tied to globalism and economic development. Yet, just as with any tool or technology, it is not good or bad, it is the use that blurs the lines between ethical and unethical. Sites like Wikileaks and Demonoid have been both lauded and cursed, depending on the point of view. Proponents of open sharing of information believe the public has a right to know information, regardless of the consequence – information should be public. Wikileaks is a non-profit media organization who says its goals is to: “Bring important news and information to the public. We provide an innovative, secure and anonymous way for sources to leak information to our journalists (our electronic drop box). One of our most important activities is to publish original source material alongside our news stories so readers and historians alike can see evidence of the truth”. Many global governments are censoring sites like Wikileaks, purporting that the information puts governments and security service employees at risk, and that disseminating certain documents is tantamount to espionage and should be prosecuted (http://www.cfr.org/media-and-foreign-policy/legal-case-against-wikileaks/p23618; for more on the pro/con arguments, see: http://www.techrepublic.com/blog/10things/10-arguments-for-and-against-wikileaks/2402). Certainly, we are in a new information age. As this new age evolves, older, more outdated means of distributing information and entertainment will also need to change. This change may either be proactive and benefit artists and their companies as well as users; or reactive and cost millions that will likely never be recovered as piracy becomes more sophisticated.