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

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

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

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

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

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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