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The Return of Peer-To-Peer

The dramatic shuttering of Megaupload exposed the weaknesses in a streaming system that stored information in one place. After the panic, users have begun to return to an old favourite, peer-to-peer sharing, and its robust, decentralized structure.

by Fabien Soyez On March 1, 2012

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Back in 2009, Arbor Networks, a company specializing in network management, announced that the peer-to-peer model of file sharing, wherein each client acts as a server, was in decline. Users were turning more and more towards streaming.

On January 19 of this year the FBI ordered the shuttering of Megaupload, the Internet’s largest direct downloads platform. The Internet, in turn, panicked. Cogent and Carpathia Hosting, hosting companies which handled some of the site’s traffic, lost 30% of their business. Fearing the great purge, sites like VideoBB and Fileserve raced to empty their servers. Rapidshare and MediaFire in turn decided to police themselves, taking action against their own customers.

Jeffrey Talada of the Washington Pirate Party, a branch of the US Pirate Party, observed the chaos:

These sites are like a hydra – you get rid of one, and twenty more are born to replace it. If Megaupload is found guilty, they will go outside of the United States. But the same weakness will persist, the centralization.

Talada, a fierce opponent of the ACTA treaty and the recently shelved SOPA, believes Megaupload proved that a centralized system is weak. “Every day millions of Internet users went to one site. All it took was to shut it down and everything disappeared,” he continues. “That would never have happened with peer-to-peer.” He advocates a return to basics:

Have people ever really left P2P? If the government closes something, people will go somewhere else. They might already have their own preference.

According to Ipoque’s online observatory, which measures such things, the level of P2P traffic around the world spiked suddenly in Europe after January 20. The resurrection of peer-to-peer.

In the week following the closure of Megaupload, graphics posted by Ipoque showed peaks reaching 15% of total European bandwidth traffic. Those curves have now stabilized somewhat. Bittorrent and eDonkey are the two most widely used exchange protocols. According to the site Peerates.net, which publishes statistics on the use of eMule servers, the number of searches on eDonkey increased from 110,000 in early January to 200,000 after the shuttering of Megaupload.

Back to Basics

Maxime Rouquet, co-president of the French Pirate Party, notes a “stagnation” in the number of users streaming and carrying out direct downloads. For him, salvation will come in the shape of P2P. “With the collapse of Cogent shares, you realize that on a technical level centralization is a very bad thing,” he says. Benjamin Bayart, president of French independent service provider French Data Network (FDN) goes further:

Technically, direct downloading involves an over-centralised point which distributes content en masse. A state has decided to shut it down, in the blink of an eye. An ultra-centralized system is very weak. P2P is a system of individual networks. To compare the two systems is like comparing the Internet and the Minitel: for the latter, if you shut down the central system, you shut down everything. For the net it’s a bit more complicated, it’s hard to shut down(…)Peer-to-peer, just like the Internet, can not be broken.

Economically, Bayart believes, peer-to-peer would also represent a “good solution” for overloaded ISP’s. “When millions of people are carrying out direct downloads en masse, it creates an enormous output, with instabilities that are very difficult to control,” he explains. “Streaming, meanwhile, lets you download the same thing several times. Both systems have dramatic effects for network management.” The president of FDN adds:

Peer-to-peer is a system of individual streams that move in small packets, never in large blocs. It doesn’t clog the network, because the traffic is distributed. ISP’s and operators who fought it five years ago have realized that was maybe a mistake. All serious technicians know that P2P is the simplest and most robust system. In order for a file to disappear, it would have to have disappeared from every computer sharing it.

On January 21, shortly after the closure of Megaupload, BitTorrent Inc. announced that it had reached 150 million users. The founder of the Swedish Pirate Party (Piratepartiet), Rick Falkvinge, sees the future as being peer-to-peer:

Some companies are already distributing games and updates using peer-to-peer technology, because it reduces their bandwidth consumption, and their costs thereafter. People like to share, they want to share, and they will always find new ways to do so. You can’t stop them.

Some crafty folks are already fully exploiting the decentralized aspect of the P2P system. Tribler, a fully decentralized BitTorrent solution, was created ten years ago. Used by only a few thousand people, Tribler is becoming a key tool for decentralized peer-to-peer use. As Dr. Pouwelse, who heads the project, explained to TorrentFreak, “With Tribler we have achieved zero-seconds downtime over the past six years, all because we don’t rely on shaky foundations such as DNS, web servers or search portals.” Search results appear directly from other users, instead of from some central database. According to Dr. Pouwelse, “the only way to break Tribler would be to break the Internet itself.”

Another much anticipated development in the world of peer-to-peer is P2P caching, something which will be “extremely beneficial for the network,” according to Jeffrey Talada.

ISP’s retain exchanged data in caches in order to speed up exchanges. When a user requests information, rather than download it from the other end of the world, it is already cached, because someone else has already downloaded it. These caches allow for higher speeds and avoid saturating the network. But mechanisms that target intermediaries, such as ACTA, are an obstacle to the development of such systems.

Towards a peer-to-peer underground

Many users, fearful of the police, are already using systems for encrypting connections in order to cover their tracks. Rick Falkvinge believes the peer-to-peer system of tomorrow will head further and further “underground”, eventually becoming anonymous. “Users will return to eDonkey and BitTorrent protocols, but they will use new ways to counter being tracked,” he predicts.

To prevent users from being identified, peer-to-peer already incorporates several anonymization systems, such as magnet links. “In the beginning with BitTorrent, you could retrieve file torrents which contained hashcodes, or digital signatures, on a central server or tracker, like The Pirate Bay or OpenBitTorrent. These days, we share information between multiple peers that connect to the network. Torrents are decentralized, so we can eliminate trackers,” says Maxime Rouquet.

The magnet links protect users, as they only contain the digital signature of the shared files, and do not back them up. Since January, The Pirate Bay has focused on magnet links to avoid becoming the next Megaupload.

Maxime Rouquet thinks that users may go even further:

With nonsense such as Hadopi, we risk forcing everyone onto peer-to-peer, but behind a virtual private network (VPN). A VPN is a system that allows users to encrypt their connection, mostly used by activists in countries where there is heavy censorship. By encrypting the connection, the user is sure to be protected against Hadopi and can use any download software risk-free. The user can also connect to sites such as Hulu that are restricted outside the United States for copyright reasons.

Rick Falkvinge would rather talk about Tor, a project conceived and implemented by hacktivists ten years ago. The principle is simple: the user installs software on his computer, turns it on and then can surf the web anonymously. “Basically, Tor allows one to bypass national restriction systems, and thus censorship: information flows through a network of relay servers that prevent authorities tracing it back to you,” says Falkvinge. The principle is known as “onion routing”.

Peer approved

For some, like Maxime Rouquet or La Quadrature du Net, the fight against piracy will push users towards securing their connection more and more, something which can have disastrous effects on the network.

“And of course, nothing will be donated to the artists,” adds Benjamin Bayart. “With peer-to-peer, everyone wins. Nobody earns or loses money. In general, people are looking for something that they have simply not found elsewhere, or can’t afford. Those people who have money and are not spending it are a minority.” He concludes:

If you try to block peer-to-peer, what will people do? They wouldn’t be able to find that latest episode of Dexter that they were looking for. Result: people will stop watching the series. It’s exactly the same not broadcasting a song over the radio: you’re losing out on an audience. The only way to ensure that people don’t download any more, would be to suppress their interest in culture …

The TV Killer

One more innovation that merits following closely comes from Bram Cohen, the inventor of Bittorrent. For three years, the computer scientist has been working on a new protocol, BitTorrent Live. It’s a sort of peer-to-peer streaming, that would allow broadcasting of live content in a decentralized manner. Contacted by OWNI, he explains:

Streaming today is expensive, and it faces many technical challenges. I knew that a decentralized P2P architecture could solve many of these challenges. The purpose of Bittorrent Live is to have very low latency, and 99% of offload, i.e. 99% of data from peers. Which means no server infrastructure or hosting provider will be required. Every Friday night, at 8pm, people can access the beta version.

No details have emerged yet as to the possibility of merging this new protocol and the classic download set-up. But according to Bram Cohen, BitTorrent Live will “reduce packet loss” and “limit network congestion, an advantage for ISP’s.”

More and more companies and services are becoming interested in peer-to-peer technology. It’s a very effective way to move data. For example, Facebook, Twitter and Etsy use the BitTorrent protocol for their internal network. The video game publisher Blizzard uses BitTorrent to distribute updates to millions of players worldwide.

With BitTorrent Live, Bram Cohen is combining what made streaming a success – instant access to videos and the decentralized, user-friendly aspect of good old P2P. “Many videos are still not findable on the Internet,” Cohen explained on February 13 at the MusicTech Summit in San Francisco. Football matches, concerts, TV shows, movies, the list of possibilities is endless.

At MusicTech, the inventor of BitTorrent let slip, half-jokingly: “My goal is to kill the television.” BitTorrent Live is still in its infancy, but Bram Cohen may well kill two birds with one stone, finally burying Megaupload and its friends.

Image Credits: Jacob Köhler (CC-BY-NC-ND), AndiH (CC-BY-NC-ND), kevin dooley (CC BY), 7of666 (CC BY-NC-SA)

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Related: Inside the Secretive World of MegaUpload

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