Rethinking File Sharing

Obviously enough, copyright owners have issues with the widespread popularity of file-sharing technology, which seems to be used, pretty much exclusively, to (illegally) trade and share copyrighted material. The RIAA and the MPAA are waging a slow but increasingly successful war on bittorrent and similar peer-to-peer technologies, and there’s no sign of them letting up any time soon.

The other big opponents of filesharing seem to be internet service providers, or ISPs, who whine a lot about the amount of bandwidth that bittorrent, in particular, uses.

There’s not much you can do to appease the copyright folks, but ISPs could, if they so chose, do something to make a marked difference in their (pirate) customers’ bandwidth usage, while still allowing them access to the vast majority of illegally pirated movies, television shows, games, and so on.

It’s not exactly groundbreaking rocket science, either.

It’s been a dirty little secret on the internet for years, but there’s a way to download, at high speeds, most of the same “new releases” that are popular on bittorrent sites, all in a way that’s both ridiculously easy, extremely reliable, and – in many countries – one hundred percent legal. What is this secret? “Binary newsgroups”, that’s what.

I’d guess that more than 90% of the games, movies, and television shows that get shared on peer-to-peer sites are also shared via USENET, a technology that’s been around since the dark ages of the internet, and which most people today know – and dismiss – as “Google Groups”. It’s a mature, well-developed technology, and really pretty simple. Now, it doesn’t have the great ideological appeal that file-sharing seems to, but it does have one great appeal to the paranoid: in a lot of jurisdictions, it’s pretty well-established, legally, that downloading illegal copies of copyrighted works isn’t a criminal offense – the offense is sharing them, distributing them, not receiving them.

The other big appeal is to ISPs: If they have their own USENET servers, then the customer bandwidth from downloading (or uploading, of course) is “on-network”, and nearly free. And, obviously, because USENET is centralized (there’s no peer-to-peer communication, just server-client), overall bandwidth use for any given set of customers should be more than halved. And, if that reduction in bandwidth usage doesn’t help out the ISPs enough, throttling of USENET traffic is common enough on the ‘net that it can almost certainly be defended as “industry standard”.

I’m not saying that binary newsgroups are the cure to all the world’s ills, but if ISPs are unhappy about the resources their customers consume when file-sharing – which they are – I can’t help but think the most effective way to do something productive about the problem is to offer an attractive solution. Obviously, Comcast, and Verizon, and Qwest, and all the other ISPs would have to make a commitment to provide – and provide well – high-quality newsgroup support, but that’s certainly doable, if they really wanted to.

Binary newsgroups will never completely replace peer-to-peer filesharing, but I can’t help but feel they are – and should be promoted as – a technological alternative for the casual movie, television, and video-game pirate. From what I can tell, everybody wins, except the MPAA, RIAA, and their ilk. What’s not to like?

For anyone who cares, I like – and recommend – GrabIt as a newsgroup download client, and Binsearch for finding “stuff” to download in the first place. You’ll – obviously – need USENET access; if your ISP doesn’t provide it, switch ISPs, or consider paying for third-party access; it doesn’t resolve the network bandwidth issue, but it’s at least no worse than file-sharing in that respect. It’s obviously a decade or two too late to be a nerd-cool “early adopter”, but if you hurry, you can still get in on the newsgroup thing before it’s hugely popular…

Published in: Geekiness, General | on May 15th, 2009| Comments Off on Rethinking File Sharing

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