April 23, 2024

The Future of Filesharing

Today there’s a Senate hearing on “The Future of P2P”. On Saturday, I gave a talk with a remarkably similar title, “The Future of Filesharing,” at the ResNet 2004 conference, a gathering of about 400 people involved in running networks for residential colleges and universities. Here’s a capsule summary of my talk.

(Before starting, a caveat. Filesharing technologies have many legitimate, non-infringing uses. When I say “filesharing” below, I’m using that term as a shorthand to refer to infringing uses of filesharing systems. Rather than clutter up the text below with lots of caveats about legitimate noninfringing uses, let’s just put aside the noninfringing uses for now. Okay?)

From a technology standpoint, the future of filesharing will involve co-evolution between filesharing technology on one side, and anti-copying and anti-filesharing technology on the other. By “co-evolution” I mean that whenever one side finds a successful tactic, the other side will evolve to address that tactic, so that each side catalyzes the evolution of the other side’s technology.

The resulting arms race favors the filesharing side, for two reasons. First, the filesharing side can probably adapt faster than the anti-filesharing side; and speed is important in this kind of move-countermove game. Second, the defensive technologies that filesharing systems are likely to adapt are the same defensive technologies used in ordinary commercial distributed systems (end-to-end encryption, anti-denial of service tactics, reputation systems, etc.), so the filesharing side can benefit from the enormous existing R&D efforts on defensive technologies.

Given all of this, it’s a mistake for universities or ISPs to spends lots of money and effort trying to develop or deploy the One True Solution Technology (OTSS). Co-evolution ensures that the OTSS would sow the seeds of its own destruction, by motivating filesharing designers and users to change their systems and behavior to defeat it. At best, the OTSS would buy a little time – but not much time, given the quick reaction time of the other side. Rather than an OTSS, a series of quick-and-dirty measures might have some effect, and at least would waste fewer resources fighting a losing battle.

The best role for a university in the copyright wars is to do what a university does best: educate students. When I talk about education, I don’t mean a five-minute lecture at freshman initiation. I don’t mean adding three paragraphs on copyright to that rulebook that nobody reads. I don’t mean scare tactics. What I do mean is a real, substantive discussion of the copyright system.

My experience is that students are eager to have serious, intellectual discussions about why we have the copyright system we have. They will take seriously the economic justification for copyright, if it is explained to them in a non-hysterical way. They’ll appreciate the wisdom of the limitations on copyright, such as fair use and the idea/expression dichotomy; and in so doing they’ll realize why there are not exceptions for other things.

This kind of education is expensive; but all good education is. Surely, amid all of the hectoring “education” campaigns, there is room for some serious education too.


  1. Mark Gritter says

    I’m not convinced that Internet/distributed system research and development is actually going to help infringing filesharers in the long run. Defenses against denial of service attacks generally involve some combination of identifying, interpreting, and limiting wide-area traffic. This is also the sort of thing that could prove helpful in surpressing file sharing, or at least providing better identification for individual lawsuits or complaints to ISPs.

  2. “Rather than clutter up the text below with lots of caveats about legitimate noninfringing uses, let’s just put aside the noninfringing uses for now. Okay?”

    It is a minor point, but I do not think it is ok. Does this not help those who try to simply equate file-sharing with pirating? This is a phrase that must not be conceded. It is perfectly neutral in its description. I propose to use some other term, such as file-pirating, but as a nonnative speaker I do not feel really qualified. This may seem a bit Don Quixotic (-ish?), but some aspects of this battle are like that anyway.

  3. You suggest a couple of reasons why file sharers will have the advantage. One is that they can adapt more quickly. I don’t see why this will necessarily be the case in the long run. Eventually the copyright companies will be fully net-savvy and will hire teams of security consultants who will devise cutting edge attacks on these networks, people as qualified as, well, you. Look at the versatility and creativity of the malware community and imagine those devious minds turned to thwarting file sharing.

    You also suggest that the same techniques used to defend against malware can help file sharers. Maybe so, although I’m not sure the problems are that much the same.

    The biggest difference between the two, and the one which gives an enormous boost to the attackers, is that defenders are breaking the law! This is exactly the opposite to the circumstance with today’s malware attacks. Imagine the situation we’d have today if it were somehow illegal to defend against spam and viruses, while the creators of those menaces operated with impunity under the color of the law. Bad as the situation is now, it’s clear that it would be far worse if the attackers didn’t have to operate covertly and it was the defenders who were forced to disguise their efforts. That’s how it will be with illegal file sharing.

    I don’t know how it will play out, and I’m as curious as the next guy to see what happens. But I wouldn’t count either side out in advance.

  4. At the risk of sounding sarcastic: sure there is room for serious ‘education’ when it benefits corporate interests. Will it change anything regarding the students views on copyright? I find it doubtful given the almost religious clinging to more or less unrealistic models of economy and politics experienced in the educational facilities, almost always directed on justifying the status quo of corporate interests dominating society.
    The only real way of changing anyones views would be a real discussion about intellectual property and the values and disadvantages associated with it. Corporate interest of course does not really want this discussion to be widely propagated, since it would pose a challenge to the established system of diverting capital from the consumer or the third world to the big corporations themselves and the ways this is being accelerated by state intervention, like the IP provisions of GATT.
    Therefore, the keyword has to be ‘education’ of the students in the ways the system is to work according to business interests, as opposed to ‘discussion’, which given the obvious (ab)use of IP will be rather slanted against those interests.
    Given that students in universities are at least supposed to resist pure doctrinal education, the obvious conflict seems insurmountable.