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Peer-to-Peer for Academia

by Andy Oram

Andy Oram delivered a shortened version of this speech, "Research Possibilities in Peer-to-Peer Networking," to the Virtual Internet2 Member Meeting on Thursday, October 4, 2001. Internet2 is a consortium of over 180 universities working, with industry and government support, to develop new infrastructure and applications for the Internet.

Internet2 features the use of high-bandwidth media such as the videoconference through which this meeting was held. Several members organized a P2P session to build interest in the potential efficiency and new applications offered by P2P. Many in the academic community, however, still associate the term P2P with file sharing and the problems universities have had with bandwidth exhaustion and legal copyright challenges.

Peer-to-peer is a venerable and far-reaching concept that has received a new impetus and a striking visibility in the past year. I'm thrilled to present some of my observations before an audience of academic administrators and professionals, because when peer-to-peer first burst upon the attention of the greater public, universities played a crucial role: You tried to stop it.

Yes, when Napster started reaching huge audiences, universities got alarmed at the increase in network bandwidth usage and many blocked Napster from their networks. This says a lot about university administrators, and I'll return to the issue after I explain some network architecture issues.

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Delivering a speech on any topic, especially one with social implications, is very hard at this time when the precariousness of modern life and the balance of world power is uppermost on our minds. I have little to offer that will help you set aside or assimilate thoughts of the attacks of September 11. I'll simply make one observation related to peer-to-peer: With the overhead that will have to be expended on greater security and on fighting terrorism, researchers and ordinary businesses are going to have to get along on less than we've had for quite some time. We're going to have to learn to do more with fewer resources. I hope peer-to-peer can help us do this.

Academic environments are ideal for experimenting with peer-to-peer and benefiting from peer-to-peer. You have an open attitude toward information, well-educated staff who can adapt to new tools, a variety of projects that require information exchange, and a willingness to expend time and effort in order to save money.

The Internet2 project, in particular, overcomes many barriers that are holding back the deployment of peer-to-peer products in current corporate environments. Internet2 is a good test bed for basic research that can benefit peer-to-peer.

When people ask me whether peer-to-peer is really anything new and whether the term has any value, I say, "Sure it's new, and sure the term has value, because these systems have created all kinds of new problems." Perhaps these problems will be solved by Sun Microsystems or by the Intel Peer-to-Peer Working Group. But perhaps they'll be solved by Internet2 researchers: I can only ask you to try.

Legal Concerns

Clearly, I want some of you to experiment with developing and using peer-to-peer systems. But I know that universities have already faced legal problems with one slice of the peer-to-peer world, file sharing. Further legal challenges are likely to emerge.

Peer-to-peer advances the key premise that new value comes from sharing information and building on it. Naturally it comes up against copyright issues, a problem that I don't trivialize because, after all, I work for a publisher.

Most changes that affect businesses are social as well as technological. Businesses that try to hold back technological change find themselves at odds with society as a whole, as is proven by the various digital copyright battles going on now.

Academic environments are ideal for experimenting with peer-to-peer and benefiting from peer-to-peer.

These companies are stuck in regressive defense mechanisms because of sheer panic. This is the same risk our whole country now faces in its reaction to terrorism and the lack of creative adaptivity will bring the copyright holders low in the end. Recently they tipped their hand, introducing a bill into Congress that would utterly halt normal technological evolution and try to freeze current social relations in hardware. (Governments have tried to do things like this before.) But in contradiction to their fears, social change is usually slow enough that there is plenty of time for an entrepreneurial business to adapt. Physical music records will continue to be in demand for decades to come; the same goes for physical books and other media.

Of course, this doesn't make it OK to throw cease-and-desist orders in the trash can. You certainly have to understand your legal responsibilities. If students or staff are using your computers to share material that's copyrighted by someone else, you have legal liability. The much-maligned Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) actually makes your life easier on this specific issue because it provides a procedure that your system administrators can go through to protect you. But few universities understand the procedure. So learn more about the law.

Content producers may ask you to go beyond what you are legally required to do. They may approach you with various studio-friendly initiatives and tell you that you have a moral obligation to help them restrict digital distribution. Your answer to them should be, "No." Say to them, "Your industry is going through a historic upheaval, and it is up to you to figure out how you're going to deal with it. It's not our job." However, as university administrators, you do have a responsibility to protect the privacy of your students, faculty, and staff. You have an obligation to protect their freedom of speech to the extent allowed by law.

So you should watch out for copyright holders snooping around your networks or trying to suppress activities that are legal. Don't think I'm arbitrarily speculating. The Recording Industry Association of America has already declared that it might try to crack into computer systems to prevent the transmission of unauthorized music files, and its representatives were level-headed enough during discussions of the Anti-Terrorism Act to offer an amendment that specifically gives copyholders this right to be intruders.

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