Myth #49: Peer-to-peer technology is about sharing files illegally.
Myth: Peer-to-peer (P2P) networking technology is an attractive technology that has spread widely with the rise of file sharing applications such as Napster or WinMX. These are mostly used to share copyrighted music or files. P2P technology thus favours digital “pirates” and illicit file-sharing.
Busted: The term “peer-to-peer” refers to a network of equals or peers – individuals, and machines – who, with the help of appropriate communication and exchange systems, are able to collaborate spontaneously, without requiring central coordination. Due to the massive success of P2P file sharing applications in the early-2000s, P2P is widely believed to be a “pirate”-friendly technology used exclusively for sharing copyright-protected files. However, this networking technology is not only used for file sharing: it was certainly, in its first steps, relegated to this one area, which is the easiest technical option and requires a minimum of human and technical resources in order to be implemented.
However, P2P is also leveraged, and increasingly so, for alternative and legal applications, which can serve several needs of the users/consumers/citizens in today’s Internet. P2P services suggest themselves as decentralized alternatives to today’s fundamental services and instruments of our networked everyday life: search engines, social networks, online file storage services, video streaming, grid computing, instant messaging, group collaboration.
This is not only due to large-scale technological developments (improvement of the quality of users’ Internet connections, amount of disk space available on each computer), but also due to the awareness (either by researchers or by the public) that it is necessary to preserve plurality, variety and the possibility of innovation in today’s Internet ecosystem. With, for instance, Google, Facebook or Dropbox each time a user performs a search, exchanges a message with someone or stores a photo album, data is sent and saved to a set of servers before it reaches its intended recipient, helping to build a scenario of content “concentration”. On the other hand, taking advantage of P2P’s decentralizing potential, other applications aim to meet the same requirements from the point of view of the end user (who therefore continues to compose search requests, share messages and store content), but based on different technical architectures by reconfiguring how data is stored and circulated.
Truth: Despite its strong connotations as a “pirate” technology for the sharing of copyright-protected files, P2P is also used for a number of other applications, including attempts to provide decentralized and perfectly legal alternatives to the Googles and Facebooks of today. P2P is also the backbone of blockchain technology.
Source: Malcolm Campbell-Verduyn (Ed.), Bitcoin and beyond: Cryptocurrencies, blockchains, and global governance. Routledge (2017), https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/e/9781315211909; Francesca Musiani, “Giants, Dwarfs and Decentralized Alternatives to Internet-based Services: An Issue of Internet Governance”, Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture, 10(1) (2015), 81–94, http://doi.org/10.16997/wpcc.214.