Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Social and Ethical Issues of Peer to Peer Netoworks

Social and Ethical Issues of File Sharing
Using Peer-to-Peer Networks Within Society

File sharing, through the use of peer to peer networks, has evolved to the point where it presents monumental social, ethical and financial implications, through its dubious support and structure for file sharing, to organisations based on electronic data, namely the audio and visual entertainment industries. Peer-to-peer networking has developed from the 1987 WWIVnet to a global phenomenon; allowing users to discretely transfer information internationally for a variety of ethically questionable purposes. Subsequently a number of social and legal issues pertaining to copyright infringement laws arise; these problems are of paramount importance to the community as a whole due to the economical impact they present. Despite changing social views, the continue development and availability of the technology, the future of peer-to-peer networking is in question.

Peer-to-peer networks have developed over the last three decades, the common perception of its ties to file sharing a more recent development; steadily, the ethics of the application have become questionable. Peer-to-peer networks are a set up of computers where each computer, also referred to as a node, is equal, rather than the conventional server and client basis. The absence of a central server means bandwidth, storage and computing power relies on the individual nodes; ultimately the more users participating the faster the entire process becomes, rather than an excess of traffic slowing the users down. Furthermore, with each node containing requested data, the chance of a system failure and a complete loss of data are drastically reduced. These are two significant advantages of a conventional peer-to-peer network. These advantages have been realised and now numerous organisations are exploring the concept. Notably, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are implementing Lionshare, a peer-to-peer network designed to allow academics resources globally. In addition to this, Oxford University and their Department of Chemistry have adapted the idea to utilize donated computers to run large programs to “identify drug candidates.” However, the concept has also been used for multimedia file sharing. The morality of peer-to-peer networks becomes uncertain; data, which is not owned by the users, is distributed freely throughout the network. The description of file sharing embodies the definition of plagiarism, a practice that is denounced world wide for its poor ethics. Renowned artists support this view by publicly denouncing the act of file sharing.

"I am excited about the opportunities presented by the Internet because it allows artists to communicate directly with fans. But the bottom line must always be respect and compensation for creative work. I am against Internet piracy and it is wrong for to promote stealing from artists online." Elton John

It can be determined that though a number of exciting possibilities exist for file sharing and peer-to-peer networks, the ethics of distributing multimedia overshadows the positives.

A number of legal complications have arisen over the past decades, the dispute of copyright infringement on the forefront. Musicians, programmers and organisations alike depend on the sale of their products for a livelihood, they argue that their work should not be distributed as only they, the creators and authors, have that sole right. In contrast to this view, members of the public who utilize file sharing services such as Limewire, BitTorrent and Morpheus debate the point that often prices for commodities are over charged so an alternate free option is preferable. Advocates of file sharing often claim that internet piracy is fair use, “that access to free public information is a first amendment public interest served by this use.” Several landmark cases exist pertaining to this issue. Firstly A&M Records, Inc. v. Napster, Inc. (2001) set the precedent for all future cases regarding intellectual property. Napster used a peer-to-peer network to allow users to upload and download compressed versions of music; the plaintiffs argued that this was a contributory and vicarious copyright infringement. The courts ruled in favour of A&M Records Incorporated; the verdict was based on the point that the defendants had a sufficient degree of control over the users where the sampling and space shifting of music was deemed not to be fair use. However, with continuing technological advancements, the ability to hold an organisation or individual responsible is impeded. An example of these developments is the darknet, a virtual private network which covers the users identity. Furthermore, legal barriers exist between downloading internationally as a uniform approach to the matter does not yet exist. The controversy of file sharing recently hit headlines again when Pirate Bay, a Swedish company, had four individual associates charged with secondary liability for file sharing. If the four individuals are to be convicted of promoting users to illegally transfer multimedia, a historic step will be taken to shutting down torrent sites globally. *(Further reading is available on the updated blog regarding this issue.) In addition to the legal problems, a damaging economic predicament exists. Royalties, commissions and any other types of acknowledgement are disregarded for the original author of the work. The Institute for Policy Innovation recorded that in 2006 “$12,500,000,000 was lost and approximately 71,060 U.S. jobs” from the economy due to the illegal sharing of music files online. It can be determined that peer-to-peer networks and file sharing are having, though some would dispute it, a significant negative impact upon society.

The future of file sharing and the technology of peer-to-peer networks is unknown. Depending on the outcome of the Pirate Bay court case a precedent will be set which will ensure the continual existence of file sharing or begin a campaign which will hamper the development of the application globally for years to come. Despite file sharing’s continued growth, the recent integration in the popular social networking site Facebook is evidence to this, the idea poses too great a threat to too many livelihoods to be completely socially acceptable. With livelihoods and economies heavily dependant on the sales of their products, torrent sites, which provide the data for free, should be held vicariously liable and shut down. Though, due to the immense popularity of the idea, Pirate Bay recently stated it had 30,000,000 nodes, a more achievable short term goal should be set. This should include close monitoring of all torrent sites by a third party, with the data relating to the mode, frequency and amount of media being downloaded and by who, which should be made available to the industries being affected. Once these steps have been taken the technology should then be explored in its other applications such as medicine and the military. Though the future development of peer-to-peer networks and file sharing is unknown, action should be taken to ensure the growing harmful affects are eliminated.

File sharing through peer-to-peer networks has evolved to become a global phenomenon, offering an alternate design to the conventional client and server internet a majority of people are familiar with, however it comes at the price of ethical, social, economical and legal problems. Peer-to-peer networks offer revolutionary changes to speed and bandwidth to society, with increases in privacy and encryption highly attractive. On the other hand, the technology has been abused to illegally transfer multimedia without repercussions, having a wide ranging impact upon the community. Consequently, the problematic legal infringement issues may result in the cessation of the applications development for the foreseeable future. Though the idea of peer-to-peer networking offers many advantages the social and ethical issues of the application of file sharing have many more disadvantages at present.

*Further Reading:

Pirate Bay Trial Concludes

On Friday 17th April, the Pirate Bay trial concluded in Sweden, the unanimous verdict of guilty was decided on all four individuals on trial. Though the men were found guilty of promoting sharing copyrighted material, they were fined only a punitive $905,000 (US) a piece and sentenced to one year in jail. Though the individuals have stated they will appeal the decision, a monumental victory has been made for the corporate giants in the entertainment industries.

Edward Robinson