Many briefs were filed yesterday in Grokster, the upcoming Supreme Court case which has broad implications for technology developers. (Copies of the briefs are available from EFF.) There’s a lot to discuss in these briefs. Today I want to focus on two of the amicus briefs, one from the Solicitor General (who represents the U.S. government), and one from a group of anti-porn and police organizations.
The Solicitor General offers an odd discussion of P2P and the Internet’s history (pp. 2-3):
1. Peer-to-peer (P2P) computing technology enables users of a particular P2P network to access and copy files that are located on the computers of other users who are logged in to the network. Unlike traditional Internet transactions, in which a user’s computer obtains information from a specific website operated by a central computer “server,” P2P networking software gives users direct access to the computers of other users on the network. [Citation omitted.] P2P file-sharing software thus performs two principal functions: First, it searches for and locates files that are available on the various “peer” computers linked to the network, and second, it enables a user to retrieve and copy the desired files directly from such computers.
This history could hardly be more wrong. The ability to share files between any two computers on the network was an explicit goal of the Internet, from day one. The web is not a traditional aspect of the Internet, but a relatively recent development. And the web does not require or allow only large, centralized servers. Anybody can have a website – I have at least three. Searching for files and retrieving copies of files is a pretty good description of what the web does today.
What the Solitor General seems to want, really, is a net that is easier to regulate, a net that is more like broadcast, where content is dispensed from central servers.
The anti-porn amici come right out and say that that is what they want. Their brief uses some odd constructions (“Like any non-sentient, non-judgmental technology, peer-to-peer technology can be misused…”) and frequent recourse to the network fallacy.
Their main criticism of Grokster is for its “engineered ignorance of use and content” (p. 9; note that the quoted phrase is a reasonable definition of the end-to-end principle, which underlies much of the Internet’s design), for failing to register its users and monitor their activities (e.g., p. 13), for failing to limit itself to sharing only MP3 files as Napster did (really! p. 17), and for “engineer[ing] anonymous, decentralized, unsupervised, and unfiltered networks” (p. 18).
These arguments (as the lawyers say) prove too much, as they would apply equally to the Internet itself, which is ignorant of use and content, does not register most of its users or monitor their activities, does not limit the types of files that can be shared, and is generally anonymous, decentralized, unsupervised, and unfiltered.
What kind of net would make these amici happy? The Solicitor General speaks approvingly of LionShare, Penn State’s home-grown P2P system, which appears to register and log everything in sight. Of course, LionShare doesn’t fully exist yet, and even when it does exist it will not be available to the public (see LionShare FAQ, which says that the source code will be available to the public, but the public will not be allowed to share files with “authorized” academic users). For a member of the public who wants to share a legal, non-porn, non-infringing file with a wide audience, the Web, or Grokster, is a much better technology than LionShare.
These briefs are caught between nostalgia for a past that never existed, and false hope for future technologies that won’t do the job.