Why the war on file sharing is far from over

File sharing is much like speeding: Given the opportunity, most people will chance it. Find out why this battle has just begun.

Regardless of the media hype, you can't blame the Internet for the illegal copying of music and software; its existence long predates the Web's explosion in popularity. The Internet and peer-to-peer (P2P) services have only served as an accomplice to illegal file copying, simplifying the process and making it easier to find more media to pilfer.

But you can't argue that the World Wide Web did anything to slow it down either. Napster, Grokster, Kazaa, and other first-generation P2P applications introduced hundreds of thousands of users to the practice of sharing digital media.

Organizations such as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) responded by identifying the centralized file distribution points and shutting them down. At first, this was technically an easy solution.

However, with the emergence of P2P "swarming" applications, such as BitTorrent, the battle against illegal distribution of digital media has reached a crossroads. And it's one that should concern anyone who uses the Internet.

Swarming P2P applications such as BitTorrent don't rely on a centralized file distribution point. Instead, they rely on "tracker" Web sites to hold "torrent" files containing P2P peers for a particular file distribution.

When a user connects to a tracker Web site to download a file set, the site adds the user to the list of available peers from which to download. Rather than downloading the entire file distribution themselves, these peers download and exchange portions of the files with each other.

By exchanging only portions of files, BitTorrent users work together as a "swarm" to distribute files in a quicker, more efficient manner that also eliminates centralized file locations. So, from the user's standpoint, the only weak point in the BitTorrent scheme is the tracker locations.

Not surprisingly then, this is also where the recording, movie, and software industries have focused their collective efforts to end illegal file copying. Eliminate the trackers, and BitTorrent users won't know where to find the files.

In my opinion, current efforts to eliminate these tracker Web sites won't have the long-term effect the organizations are looking for—sharing and community is a facet of human nature that even legal restrictions won't ever be able to completely control. Eliminating BitTorrent tracker Web sites solves nothing because new tracker sites spring up daily.

And BitTorrent isn't the only swarming P2P method out there either. Newer, more resilient swarming P2P applications are under development, specifically designed to circumvent the weaknesses in BitTorrent's reliance on tracker Web sites.

While BitTorrent and other swarming P2P applications certainly have their legal uses, they've found their niche in illegal file distribution. And due to the legal attacks on Web tracker sites, newer swarming P2P tools may ultimately provide ammunition for assigning liability to Internet service providers (ISPs).

That means government legislation could potentially go into effect that would require ISPs to police the activities of their customers in order to prevent illegal file sharing. Such a scenario could have all sorts of implications, particularly when it comes to privacy concerns.

But that doesn't mean such laws won't emerge, nor does it guarantee legislators won't set their sights on companies as well as ISPs. In addition, newer P2P swarming applications will almost certainly include features to hide their activity, making it practically impossible to comply with such a law.

File sharing is much like speeding: Given the opportunity, most people will chance it. And while most drivers get away with it most of the time, no one has yet required automobile makers to include features in cars that automatically report speeders—a comparable request to asking ISPs to police their own customers.

But don't expect the recording, movie, and software industries to give up easily—this battle has just begun. And that means it's more important than ever that organizations establish, and enforce, well-defined acceptable use policies that address file-sharing practices in the workplace.

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