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The P2P evolution

P2P’s promise brings us together, but its inherent security risks drive us apart.

The latest Napster news gradually led me down the winding path called peer-to-peer. The more I read, the more I found I needed grounding in a useful definition that I referred back to often as I went along. It’s written by Clay Shirky on the Web site:

P2P is a class of applications that takes advantage of resources — storage, cycles, content, human presence — available at the edges of the Internet. Because accessing these decentralized resources means operating in an environment of unstable connectivity and unpredictable IP addresses, P2P nodes must operate outside the DNS system and have significant or total autonomy from central servers.

Basically, P2P programs ask, on the behalf of all users, “Do you have what I want?” — be it music files or your PC’s unused processing power. Then, the system locates what you want on an individual node. Napster is peer-to-peer, as are Freenet, Mojo Nation, and SETI. And it seems like you read or hear about a new P2P entrant every day. What’s appealing and alarming about P2P is immediately obvious : It gives control back to individual users. No longer must I have a fixed IP address, domain name, port number, etc., to share a bit of data with you. On one hand, what kind of power could be more important? On the other, what kind of power could be abused more easily? And there is abuse, particularly when another natural human impulse comes into play: to group, rate, or reward items in order that they might be more easily located.

It happens when jealous peers intentionally give another peer a low rating in order to try to “sink” that person’s contributions–typically postings or articles–to a site such as ThemeStream. It happens in the case of the popular “payback for playback” system on, which pays artists based on how frequently their songs are downloaded. (As you can imagine, artists quickly form groups of friends to download their songs as often as possible.) And it may soon be happening in the form of more unwanted spamming. Many of these programs integrate instant messaging, so any stranger can contact you when they see you online. (Napster users increasingly find themselves targets of instant-messaging promotional campaigns as they download files.) If too much unwanted messaging occurs, users will naturally retreat to more secure areas, at least for awhile.

P2P is a natural evolution in the course of computing’s yin and yang between individual versus centralized control–from mainframes to the gradual rise of PCs, to the early Internet, to a much more centralized Internet. This path, of course, also parallels the nature of humanity itself–our wobbly steps between individual rights and safety for all. Are you walking the tightrope of P2P? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

For more on P2P, see:
A one-stop resource on all things peer-to-peer.

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