The End of Peer-to-Peer?

  • The End of Peer-to-Peer?
    Today the Wall Street Journal declares that the “Peer-to-peer party comes to a halt.” The article argues that peer-to-peer networking strategies–which link together users’ computers on the net in a distributed manner, typically without a central server–are failing due to their inability to find funding or a profit model. Further dampening their future is the fact that the killer app for these products is primarily the trading of copyrighted material like music files and software, a la Napster (which is only sorta peer-to-peer, since it relies on a central server to pair up clients).

    But I think the article misses the point, as should be expected from the Journal. Again we have the problem of success or failure being determined wholly based upon investment and profit potential. This point of view is entirely ignorant of the fact that technologies can be and are valuable beyond their profit potential. Peer-to-peer networking is important not just because it allows individuals to trade mp3s unfettered–although this has its advantages. It’s important because it enhances the autonomy of each individual ‘net user, giving her the freedom to move data around without having to rely on a central server/watchdog to give approvals and route traffic.

    Perhaps it’s more difficult to see this at the moment, since the ‘net in the US is still rather freewheeling and resistent to censorship. However, in countries like China and in many Islamic states the government filters a lot of ‘net traffic and keeps a firm grip on servers, which therefore keeps a firm grip on the info that can be easily distributed. Peer-to-peer reduces the role of the server, or, rather, it turns every computer on the ‘net into a server, which makes keeping a firm grip on the data that gets moved around much harder.

    In the “free” western world, peer-to-peer becomes a potentially powerful technology in the face of private censorship being wrought by the intellectual property oligarchs–the highly concentrated music/movie/book/magazine industry–that are attempting to control the channels of distribution and use of all digital content on the Internet. The technology is not just useful to distribute these companies’ content outside their control, but to distribute your own content, or new content that the industry contends infringes on their copyrights (whether or not that contention is legally defensible), such as collage work or parody works that mock trademarked or copyrighted characters and themes.

    Contrary to what the WSJ article implies, profit motive is actually weakens peer-to-peer technologies, since eeking out substantial revenue from it requires that the technology somehow be controlled or centralized. This is exactly why Napster is so vulnerable to being shut down right now. Napster hopes to make money from it’s file-sharing technology, and must control and route the traffic in order to do so. Yet this centralized control is what opens up the company to the lawsuits it’s currently experiencing.

    Other decentralized technologies like Gnutella are less vulnerable to such persecution since the network stays alive as long as more than 1 computer on the ‘net runs the software. Although Gnutella has its own technological problems–like the fact that the protocol doesn’t appear to scale well, with the network becomming bogged down when more than a couple of thousand users are on the network–it’s very hard to shut down so long as the software is out there somewhere. Still, unlike Napster, Gnutella and similar peer-to-peer networkings strategies are less user friendly, less plug and play, requiring a little geek knowledge to get configured and working properly. It’s not unlike the Windows vs. Linux battle, where the geek-quotient holds back casual users from installing Linux. But this problem can be overcome as the technology matures and shouldn’t be considered insurmountable.

    It’s a point that I find myself constantly repeating, but yet seems as though it can’t be repeated often enough: the inability to exploit a technology, technique or idea for instantaneous profit does not mean failure of that method. Or rather one can put it this way: profit means more than immediate financial gain. Freedom, democratic control, even happiness and fulfillment are also ways to profit. And, yet, maybe someone might be able to make a living using peer-to-peer technology–but does that person have to make millions upon millions to be considered a success?

    Being independent means defining your own standard of success.

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