Sharing in Compulsive Times
| Franco Iacomella |
by Richard Clupés CC/Flickr
Cataclysms On the Surface
Recently, two of the most important and used storage and sharing files services in the web — FileServe and Wupload — changed their conditions of use making impossible to share information between regular users. Now both services only offer cloud storage for people to access files they personally uploaded. Millions of files stored in those services are now inaccessible and the links pointing to them are now dead. The reason for this drastic change is the legal pressure and persecution started by the traditional entertainment industry: big players like Paramount Pictures, Disney, 20th Century Fox, Universal and others built-up around the copyright property regimes.
The reaction of these large corporations against companies providing storage and file sharing services is a recent issue. Some months ago in an act of enormous symbolic violence, Megaupload’s website, the storage site storing the largest amount of files in the whole world, was blocked and blanked by the FBI and the Department of Justice of the United States of America. The owners of Megaupload were captured and arrested in New Zealand under charges of “massive piracy” and “conspiracy”. The day after the take down of Megaupload, 25 petabytes of information disappeared from the net and not even the customers (who paid a subscription) were able to access or retrieve the information stored in the Megaupload servers. Millions of daily users woke up on 19 January 2012 and realized that the imperial power of the United States, which until then had applied its military violence to raze villages and towns in the physical world, was now able to apply its power in the virtual geographies of the Internet.
The Hidden Logic
After Megaupload was closed down, the other major file storing services started to make important changes in their policies and functionalities. FileServes’ and Wuploads’ recent deactivation after Paramount Pictures took action against them is a strong signal that the struggle between Copyright and the internet will go further in upcoming times.
What are the motivations and explanations of this silent confrontation?
For a decade until now, digital technologies have begun to allow anyone to access informational goods at virtually zero cost per copy. This fact is only part of the current economic flow that leads to a global dissipation of the rents as exchange mechanism. The internet enables a method of distributing digital goods that makes obsolete the model of the cultural industries of the past century. Amid this period of transition and confrontation, industries try, as is predictable under capitalist logic, to extract the highest rent possible from their declining power structures. One of its most important structures, maybe the main one, is that of intellectual property. It is an economic device designed to make scarce what is not: intangibles such as cultural and informational goods.
According to the leaders of the entertainment industry, the war against “digital piracy” was coined as a war against terrorism. “Piracy” refers to the exchange of unauthorized copies of informational goods: an idea that stands on the principles of authority and legality that are overwhelmed and questioned by the new digital technologies revolution. Confronting the corporate interest and piracy-based language we found the ones that argue that the same technologies that threaten the concentrated powers of the XX Century enables the access, sharing and transforming of knowledge and art in a scale never seen in the history of human civilization. The latter group cannot be precisely defined nor uniformly act as a conscience. It is a multiplicity of actors that are organized without leaders or traditional structure and it is integrated by users/peers, civil organizations and others that cannot be located under the logic of the state or the capitalist market.
The sharing culture enabled by the distributed network called the internet is entering its decisive phase. The intensive growth of the base of network users (nearly 2 billion now), the decreasing cost of technology hardware (computers, storage), and the ubiquity of internet access that extends throughout the world makes it the primary means of communication of our time and the main battleground for the struggle for power.
Given this context, it’s possible to understand the logic behind several recent milestones in the history of the internet, sharing and copyright: law proposals like the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA); the still alive Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) and the recently emerged Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA). All of these bills are pushed by private corporations that seek to get control over the internet’s users with help of government legislation, but also with their police power as we have seen in the case of Megaupload.
A Brief History of Digital File Sharing
As we pointed before, the “copyfight” around file sharing technologies have, at least, more than ten years of history. The large scale sharing experiences started in 1999 with Napster, the famous P2P (peer-to-peer) file sharing software. Napster popularized the P2P communications architectures, while in those times the client-server relationship was the most used one. In practice, Napster’s users shared certain contents on their own personal storage devices with other peers. Napster itself was the software that enabled the connection between peers by providing an updated index of the whole list of files made available by the total users of the software. Once the peers exchange was set up, the Napster software and central server didn’t intervene in any other way in the process.
Napster was only active for 2 years, but in that short time its user base grew to more than 20 million of users who exchanged 2.8 billion files by February of 2001. The fast growth and quick disease of Napster finds it reasons in its network infrastructure that we briefly described above. Legal action by the recording industry based on charges of “material contribution in users’ copyright infringement” succeeded in closing the service in 2001. Napster failed to be distributed enough: the presence of a centralized server indexing users’ contributions to the P2P network was its Achilles heel. In Tim Wu’s words, “The lesson was simple — Napster had not gone far enough.”
The P2P sharing systems continued after Napster and most of the new P2P file sharing software was explicitly designed to avoid the legal problems faced by it’s predecessor. Notable among other technologies were Gnutella, FastTrack and BitTorrent: all of them using a far more distributed-model infrastructure than Napster. FasTrack protocol became very popular as one of sharing software using it was the famous KaZaa. Both technologies faced legal charges and gradually lost popularity, in some cases due to loss of quality of trade caused by technical and legal offensive against them. However, the main reason was the switch of users to cloud computer style sharing services.
With the emergence of file storage services in the cloud, users began to slowly turn to them and P2P networks got abandoned and lost their potential because, unlike other technologies, they are directly dependent on the flow of data provided by the users. The rapid decline in the cost of storing information in digital formats and massive adoption of asymmetric internet connections resulted in a huge proliferation of services offering storage services such as Megaupload and others mentioned before in this article. It was a return to the logic of the client-server model. Users, that used to be peers, abandoned their horizontal and bidirectional connections in order to consume from centralized sources.
With the deactivation of Megaupload and others, the centralization model is now showing it’s own limits.
Lessons for the future
Based on the recent events, the lesson seems to be clear: a centralized network is easier to attack and destroy than one where power is dispersed. The expansion of these types of schemes where information is centralized has certainly had negative results for the interests of users and has also damaged the culture of sharing that the internet once enabled. The current extinction of services like Megaupload, Wupload and those who are to come, highlights the fragility of the sharing practices grounded in centralized network models. By basing our social practices on technologies that users cannot control, they lose control and eventually the practice itself is impaired by those who really hold power.
The transitional times we live in are turbulent, crossed by conflicts and tensions that daily become more visible. There is no doubt that one of the great debates we are facing revolves between centralization or the distribution of power. Of course, this affects much more than the exchange of informational goods, but it is in that area where its importance is gaining notoriety.
Sharing in convulsive times requires us to think and act in a collective way. The (re)adoption of peer-to-peer practices should be based not only on short-term election or be based solely on technical advantages: it is necessary to understand its political and ethical implications of the practices that entails.
From a technical side, the P2P networks are quickly evolving again and recent facts clearly show it: BitTorrent, the largest distributed file sharing protocol, experimented an important increase of its base of users just before Megaupload’s take down. The Pirate Bay, the world famous site serving torrent technology is now moving to a new file protocol called Magnet that is designed to be even more distributed, redundant and robust. One of the main advantages is that the index of shared files will be extremely portable allowing anyone to grab and mirror the Pirate Bay website’s content in only 90 Mb5. Important progress is also being made in P2P streaming, the technology that promise to “kill off television”, by providing a distributed infrastructure where viewers not only receive but also retransmit data.
In any case, the sharing of information and knowledge is a practice already strongly rooted in the vast majority of users of the net of networks. The only way to compensate the attacks and threats on the internet and also to strengthen the culture of sharing is through the empowerment of users. This seems only possible by avoiding the big players that capture and concentrate power. To share in these troubled times we must become peers again.
Franco Iacomella is the Executive Director of the P2P Foundation. He blogs here.