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Peer to peer (p2p)

Updated : Thursday 7 July 2011

Peer to Peer (P2P to those in the know) is a big word, as it’s the prime target of the legislators in their attempts to stamp out internet piracy. It is software that allows internet users to exchange and share files (music, films and software). There are different ways of doing this. The most complex consists of downloading the P2P software, such as BitTorrent. Then, you Google the name of the file you want, for example the latest album by Florence and the Machine, adding the word "Torrent". Google will give you various results, so you need to select one of the websites offering that file in "Torrent" format, such as T411. This site T411 is a library containing Torrent files. It will offer you the latest Florence album to download, or the latest "Shrek" movie if you prefer. Once the file is downloaded, you need to open it using P2P software. Then you can watch your film, or listen to your favourite album, without spending a thing. Why use P2P instead of just downloading the film directly by going to a library website? Because P2P allows large numbers of internet users to download the same file at the same time, and in a matter of just minutes or seconds. Yes, but how? Nora Neko, our web guru extraordinaire, explains: the Torrent file isn’t the final document. It’s a tiny document in text format containing a reference to the file searched for (the film, album, etc). All those holding the same Torrent file can share the document searched for, one small segment at a time. For instance, if there are ten people holding the film you are looking for, there will be eleven of you with the Torrent, and each of the other ten will send you a bit of the film. Software like BitTorrent has the advantage of rebuilding the segments into one single element, which speeds up the downloading time considerably. So, a film held by 1000 people (1000 of your peers, in other words) will take just a few minutes to download, while a film held by only one other user would take days. So P2P has a lot going for it, starting with the fact that it’s free.

You do need to be careful, though, of the obstacles you’ll encounter as a P2P download enthusiast. It is hard to get at the file you want without being subjected to advertising clips, which are often pornographic. I had a nasty surprise when I tried testing the system by downloading "Shrek": naively, I clicked on the most obvious button saying "download" (it was flashing), which turned out to be a big mistake, as I ended up downloading a porn video. I should, of course, have clicked on the more anonymous little "download" button next to it….. child’s play it ain’t.

The other snare of P2P is a legal one. Peer to peer is not, as such, an unlawful practice: you have the right to distribute your own family films or photos to the public. what is illegal is copying and redistributing works subject to copyright you do not own (Shrek would be one). Lawmakers, however, are tending increasingly to overlook that detail in their crusade against the technique itself, taking the view that it is mostly used to infringe protected works. But Peer to Peer is now viewed by legislators as copyright infringement: even if you have a work on a physical medium like a CD, you do not own the work itself or have the right to publicly distribute it. Someone who downloads files illegally is just as guilty as someone buying a fake Louis Vuitton bag. Some websites have been closed down by the courts, like Limewire, which is no longer available. Derivative sites exist, but they are illegal too.

Different countries are struggling to find different ways of enforcing the prohibition. In France, for example, your online activity is tracked by robots via your IP address, so that, theoretically, if you are caught in P2P downloading you can be fined and after two warnings, the worst offenders can have their internet access cut off.

So far (judging by the French experience) legislation aimed at stopping piracy has failed dismally. There’s more of it going on than ever. The web is a very creative place; it was not long before alternatives to P2P began to appear. Internet users now have several options. First is the offline option: there is nothing to stop you making a physical copy of a file, by borrowing a film and copying it onto a USB key. But leaving aside whether it is legal, this has its limits, as does streaming: you don’t have the file, so you can’t read it whenever you want, or pass it on to your friends. Not to mention the fact that the DVD viewing quality will be poor.

Another option is direct download, using websites like Megaupload. Now that information travels faster on the internet with recent advances in technology, you can download a film directly and watch it as you would any video. All you do is click on the chosen file in the Megaupload library and it downloads automatically, using the browser. It’s free, as long as you are patient. If you want faster downloads you have to subscribe, which will cost you a few euros per month.

P2P has taken some knocks and its use has fallen off, but we haven’t seen the last of it. The ISPs (internet service providers) have been sharpening up their act to hold on to their P2P enthusiast customers. Orange now offers its French customers a dynamic IP address that makes it harder to be tracked, as the web address (the one by which you can be traced) changes every 24 hours! Other ways of circumventing the enforcers include encrypted P2Ps like ANts or MUTE, which mask your IP address and encrypt the files you download. Or there are websites offering anonymous addresses for downloading pirated files – a bit like having a false passport to avoid identification. They aren’t free, but they cost only a few euros a year. Some sites go even further, like Seed Fuck, which enables you to “borrow” an IP address from another internet user to browse, and it’s that other user who will bear any penalty. The pioneers of the internet must be turning in their graves (not the current lot, who are still alive and active, obviously). These manoeuvres are not exactly in the spirit of the web –whatever happened to solidarity between internet users?

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