To P or not to P

No, this is not about the P vs. NP question. This is indeed about the P2P networks — the likes of Kazaa and Bittorrent, if that makes more sense. The question I wonder about is — will these networks ever go away? And if not, will people ever stop using them for illegal file sharing?

The answer to the first question is a clear no, atleast in my head. It is becoming ever more clear that the the Internet as we know it is going to stay the way it is for a long long time. TCP, IP, DNS — all these technologies are not going to to disappear anytime soon. These P2P networks are what are commonly known as “overlay” networks in technical lingo — a network laid on top of the Internet that lets you do things that the Internet won’t let you do. A lot of (smart) people seem to think that overlay networks are going to be the platform for experiment and innovation in networking research. Even otherwise, there are a lot of socio-political reasons to believe that there is something inherent in the structure of P2P networks that makes them so attractive, and indeed, almost indispensible — highly decentralized management, no single point of failure, high availability, anonymity — to name a few. So I think P2P is here to stay.

Which brings us to the second question — one of the most obvious and long standing application of P2P networks has been file sharing. And while there is certainly a strong case to be made for **legitimate** file/data sharing, it can not be denied that illegal file sharing is the most common usage scenario. Infact, many recent studies (sorry I should be citing references for all these claims I make, but I’m just being lazy) indicate that perhaps more than 30% of all of Internet’s traffic today might be Bittorrent, much of which is illegal movies and songs. IMHO, illegal file sharing is going to go on as long as we have P2P networks.

Does that mean we can’t do anything about this? Technically, may be not. I mean, sure we might put in trace analyzers and network level watch dogs to do traffic analysis at run time, we could talk to the ISPs to reveal customer-IP mappings, we could insert bogus multimedia content into the network and a whole bunch of other things. But all of these solutions can be worked around (more or less) and none of them is a good, clean, permanent solution.

I think the first step towards a permanent solution is to make illegal file sharing unattractive. One way of doing this is to somehow increase the “cost” of using these P2P networks that it outweights the “utility” a user derives. For instance, we might make searching and obtaining content extremely difficult, while at the same time making access to autorized and licensed content easier and cheaper to ween out users away from illegal file sharing.

On the other hand, we simply might not do anything at all.
There have been some studies (again, I’m not giving references, but they //are// out there) that say that music sales have actually **gone up** due to these P2P networks. One argument says that people first try out music by download it illegally, and if they like it, they buy the real album. Same argument applies equally well to DVDs and movie ticket sales.

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