Ars Technica published an intriguing piece by Nate Anderson today predicting that file-sharing programs like the new version of Lime Wire will lead to users just swapping files among friends. These private sharing networks are oftentimes called darknets, and Anderson believes that entertainment companies should be afraid of them because they puts users out of reach of their P2P investigations. People that don’t share their files publicly can’t be sued, and darknet-like features in applications as popular as Lime Wire could have a dramatic impact on the entertainment industry’s efforts to enforce their rights online, Anderson believes.
I have a problem with this argument for a number of reasons: First of all, it’s overstating the need for darknets. Users haven’t felt like they had to hide in the past, and I don’t think they’ll go underground now that the music industry has announced its intention to stop filing lawsuits. Secondly, darknets just don’t work all that well for video content. And finally, looking at person-to-person file-sharing features through just your darknet glasses is severely underestimating their potential to make P2P more social.
First of all, let’s be clear what we are talking about here: Lime Wire recently revamped its file-sharing client, adding a feature that makes it possible to share files solely with your contacts. Lime Wire uses existing Jabber services to facilitate this type of personal file sharing, which means that you can pick any of your Google Talk buddies and share some files with her or him. It’s a great feature, and it offers the added benefit of privacy and relative security: Rights holders will have a tough time trying to find out about your file sharing habits if all you do is swap with your friends.
Of course, this idea is hardly revolutionary. The developers of the once-popular file-sharing software Edonkey briefly pursued a project called KDrive that offered a similar setup of private and public sharing within the same client. There are also applications like Waste that add strong cryptography to the mix. And users have been swapping files with chat buddies for years through their AIM and Yahoo IM clients.
Researchers and copyright critics alike have been using examples like these to argue against file-sharing lawsuits, contending (much like Anderson does in his piece) that increased legal pressure will just drive users underground. However, most users apparently never got that memo. The RIAA sued more than 30,000 file sharers in recent years, but the Pirate Bay and similar sites are as popular as ever. Even countries like Germany that have seen literally hundreds of thousands of file-sharing lawsuits still see significant levels of public P2P traffic. It’s hard to imagine that users will be scared into hiding by the now-proposed warning notices from their ISPs, which may never actually have any real consequences.
Private P2P file-sharing features like the one included in the new Limewire version also work best for smaller files, but file sharers have been rapidly moving toward downloading TV shows, movies and even HD content. Getting a TV show episode in reasonable time through BitTorrent is possible exactly because BitTorrent is a public network with hundreds, if not thousands of participants sharing bits and pieces of each file. Downloading the latest Hollywood blockbuster from just one of your friends, on the other hand, will take forever, thanks to the sorry state of U.S. broadband, which more often than not is based on “high-speed” DSL connections with 128kbps upstream bandwidth.
The biggest problem I have with the whole darknet argument is that it misses the point of personal file sharing. Part of the charm of the original Napster system was that users had conversations about content, recommending music to each other and pitching their own creations in the process. These social interactions got lost when P2P services moved toward a more decentralized architecture to shield the companies involved from lawsuits.
However, the conversation never really stopped. It just moved to torrent sites, forums and even social networks. Reintegrating these social features into P2P software will help to make it even easier to discuss and discover new content — something P2P has been notoriously bad at. That doesn’t mean that users won’t share publicly anymore, they’ll just have better access to content that they really like. And eventually we’ll see that users won’t start to swap files with their buddies out of fear, but because they like to be social. Smart content owners won’t see this as a threat but as a feature that may actually help to promote and even monetize new content.