Dan Gillmor on the next P2P wave

Dan Gillmor on the next P2P wave
Posted on Tue, May. 14, 2002

“Napster seems closer to death than ever. But its progeny are multiplying.

On Tuesday, the pioneering file-sharing company lost its latest chief executive and moved closer to a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing. Sometimes the revolutionaries take the bullets.

Napster’s descent was partly the company’s own fault. It knew, as internal documents showed during the court case that led to a shutdown and attempted re-engineering of the service, that many users of its software were engaging in misbehavior that ranged up to outright theft. The company’s legal defense didn’t move a federal judge, and the entertainment cartel curbed its most visible threat in decades.

Yet anyone stopping by the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference in Santa Clara this week surely noted the insurgency’s continuing strength. The concepts Napster made popular, notably in the arena known as “peer to peer” technology, are an indelible and growing part of the scene.

Peer-to-peer, also known by the abbreviation P2P, continues to infiltrate the tech landscape. It simply makes sense to make more efficient use of capabilities — of devices and people — at the edge of networks.

Consider the “content-addressable Web” being introduced at the conference today by a Minnesota-based company, Onion Networks.

It’s based on the first wave of peer-to-peer applications, and makes clever use of the P2P concept, enabling people at the edge to distribute large files much more easily and cheaply.

Here’s a rough description of how it works: Say you have a video you want lots of people to see. You configure your server computer with some of Onion’s capabilities. When someone downloads your file, that person’s own computer becomes a site where other people can go to download the same file. The more people who get the video, the more widely it’s distributed — with the Onion software keeping track — and the less load you’ll see on your own computer.

It’s somewhat analogous to the class of products known as caching servers, such as those run by Akamai. Companies pay Akamai to store copies of their most widely requested Web material in various physical locations, so people can get it more easily and locally. Cory Doctorow, a technologist and writer, calls the Onion technology “Ad-hoc-amai” — reflecting the ad hoc way the data spreads out to local computers.

Justin Chapweske, Onion’s chief technology officer, says the company will license its technology free to open-source and public-domain projects. “Our focus is to give something back to the open-source community,” he says.

Open source and the public domain are under attack as never before, largely from the entertainment cartel that so successfully brought Napster to heel. But resistance is beginning to surface to tactics that would not just curb the Napsters of this world, but would literally require Hollywood’s approval for technological innovation….”