P2P – to be or not to be?

The Internet is under attack. More precisely, one particular way of using it is under threat: the decentralised, peer-to-peer (P2P) approach.

One piece of US legislation aimed at taming the rough vigour of P2P networks is called dramatically the “Protecting Children from Peer-to-Peer Pornography Act of 2003.” As its name implies, it views P2P as a sink of iniquity whose poisons threaten America's innocent youth. The P2P industry organisation P2P United naturally sees things differently, and suggests taking another approach to deal with the problem.

By comparison, the proposed US “Inducing Infringement of Copyrights Act of 2004” sounds quite innocuous, but as the accompanying press release explains, the targets are nonetheless “corporations distributing so-called ‘peer-to-peer filesharing software',” and their “truly malicious business model”, which entails “inducing” children to commit crimes by swapping music files. This has provoked some lively discussion, as well as a point-by-point rebuttal of the key ideas.

Although both Acts invoke the need to protect children to justify their new controls, the real impetus behind them comes from a very different imperative: to shore up a tottering music industry that is grappling with file-swapping on a massive scale (the leading P2P program has been downloaded over 350 million times). The legislation therefore forms part of a series of corporate assaults on P2P systems. The more recent proposal represents an attempt to reverse a decision handed down by a US court when it refused a request from the music industry to hold Grokster responsible for copyright infringement committed by users of its software.

There are two main problems with these latest legal moves. First is the fact that the basic premise that P2P file-sharing is damaging the recorded music business is by no means proven. The most detailed research to date, published this year by two US academics, concluded that “downloads have an effect on sales which is statistically indistinguishable from zero, despite rather precise estimates. Moreover, these estimates are of moderate economic significance and are inconsistent with claims that file sharing is the primary reason for the recent decline in music sales.”

More worryingly, perhaps, is that the effects of these Acts, if passed, would be extremely far-reaching. For example, it is possible that selling any MP3 player or equivalent - Apple's iPod, say - might be construed as “inducing” owners, including children, to swap files. Perhaps even an operating system without built-in, non-removable Digital Rights Management (DRM) would fall foul of the legislation.

The end-result would be a huge chill cast over both old and new technologies. The latter is particularly worrying, since P2P currently represents one of the most fertile areas of online experimentation. BitTorrent is beginning to revolutionise the way that many users download large files; the P2P approach also forms the basis of business software such as Groove as well as major research areas like grids and swarms.

What makes this kind of legislation pointless is that there is always a way to route around it. Just as the centralised Napster was replaced by the de-centralised Gnutella and KaZaA, so these would simply be dropped in favour of anonymous systems such as FreeNet, where policing is even harder. Banning P2P entirely is hardly an option, since the entire Internet is in some sense based on the idea. Far better would be for the music industry to recognise that the world has changed, and to follow the lead of companies like BMG, which plans to fight file sharing by reducing the price of its music CDs drastically. Ideally the major players would offer low-cost, CD-quality online music services without DRM, but that may be asking for too much.

Glyn Moody welcomes your comments.