The right to one’s property underpins a capitalist society, but as technological developments have enabled individuals to share digital property, this foundation is under scrutiny. The historical business-consumer model that has dominated how people interact with content and businesses is changing, as consumers are able to also be producers and distributors. It is important to examine the role of such technology as it shifts the social dynamic.
In 1999, Napster gave the world its first taste of peer-to-peer (P2P) sharing. The platform enabled users to find other users with content they wanted, and download it from them as opposed to doing so from a central server. This model was the first of its kind to be widely used, and it triggered immediate backlash from the music industry. Within a few years, however, they were shut down; but it hardly mattered because it had done something far more important than sharing music: it sparked an important debate.
In the summer of 2001, at the same time Napster was being shut down, a new protocol called BitTorrent was first released to the world. This new P2P program allowed users to download “torrent” files, which would retrieve a list of “peers” who possessed that file and connect the user with those peers. Instead of downloading it all at once, the user would download pieces of the content from multiple peers, which allowed for fast, cheap, and redundant data transfer. It allowed users to share all kinds of media, audio or otherwise, and quickly grew in popularity. Today, it operates in a legal gray zone, in part due to the groundwork laid by systems such as Napster.
Much of the popular debate centers on legal questions surrounding copyright infringement, but of equal importance is the socio-political value that P2P brings. The most immediate concern is that this “hurts the creators” and that widely distributing someone’s work for free is damaging. However, a study by Robert Hammond, an economics professor at North Carolina State University, shows that file sharing (through album leaks) can actually be helpful, or at least, not detrimental, to individual artists, in the form of promotional support and increased interest. Now, the study also concludes that for smaller artists this sharing can be worse; while this may be true, it has to be weighed against gaining more publicity for their work. In fact, BitTorrent realized the potential of this and so created “Bundles”, which allows smaller artists to access a larger audience. Such a distributed system allows creators to directly connect with their fans or users, without needing a middleman, which is beneficial to both parties.
More abstractly, P2P has markedly reframed the question of who has the right to produce and share content and the way “ownership” should be discussed. Because anyone can access this material for free, this a highly democratic form of distribution; rather than a single tap that controls the flow of media to the public (albums, movies, etc.), there is a global community of individuals who rely on each other to access it. This also means P2P is a way for groups to get around censorship and prevents any one organization from setting limitations on others. In light of Edward Snowden’s revelations about PRISM, BitTorrent’s Sync service, a file storage system that uses its P2P protocol, soared in usage. This shows the flexibility of P2P – not only is it used to share content globally, it is also used as the foundation for a distributed private storage system.
On a fundamental level, peer-to-peer sharing is a distributed architecture that allows clients to connect to each other in a decentralized way. But tools like BitTorrent have fostered a new kind of ecosystem that enables users to be more than mere passive consumers and actively contribute to this community. It is by no means a perfect system, but it gives the people a choice, and that is the most we can ask for.