Uncovering The Dark Side of P4P

Opinion

P4P is touted as the new and improved P2P. The technology has the potential to lower bandwidth costs for ISPs and speed up downloads for P4P enabled filesharing clients. There is a dark side to this new technology though. The strong anti-piracy connections are fuel for conspiracy theorists, and Net Neutrality might be at stake.

Earlier this week, researchers from Yale University and The University of Washington presented the latest findings from their P4P research. P4P is a new technology that could make any filesharing application (including BitTorrent) cheaper for ISPs, as it tries to connect to local peers as much as possible. Local traffic is cheaper for ISPs and reduces the load on the network. In addition, P4P enabled filesharing clients will download files faster than regular clients.

In theory this is a great idea. However, P4P requires collaboration between the developers of filesharing clients and ISPs, which might be a problem. Indeed, most P2P companies TorrentFreak talked to are not that excited about the initiative, but they wont say that out loud, and play along for the time being.

There might even be a darker side to the project, as the P4P working group includes some prominent members of the entertainment industry and well known anti-piracy lobbyists. Besides that, we argue that it is likely that the technology might slow down transfers of people who are on ISPs that don’t end up supporting the technology, raising serious Net Neutrality issues.

Let’s start off by looking at the mission statement of the P4P working group, which was founded last year. One of the key objectives of the group, quoted from their official mission statement (pdf) is as follows (emphasis added).

[to] Determine, validate, and encourage the adoption of methods for ISPs and P2P software distributors to work together to enable and support consumer service improvements as P2P adoption and resultant traffic evolves while protecting the intellectual property (IP) of participating entities

It might of course be that the P4P group included this objective to cover their asses. However, we have our doubts. For now, the technical specs give no reason to believe that the new technology will support piracy filters or other anti-piracy measures. But, when you consider that the MPAA, NBC Universal and several other representatives from the entertainment industry are members of the working group, this might very well be suggested in the next phase of the project.

One might wonder, why is the MPAA involved in all this? Obviously their agenda is to stop copyright infringement, so we have no reason to believe that they will try to steer P4P in this direction as well. This would not be a big surprise really. The P4P working group was founded by The Distributed Computing Industry Association (DCIA), a collaboration of the entertainment industry, ISPs and P2P companies. The purpose of the DCIA is clear, as we can read on their website (emphasis added):

Our number one priority clearly is the elimination of copyright infringement and, because DCIA advocates the commercial development of distributed computing (as opposed for example to trying to stop it), our key strategy centers on proliferating legitimate commercial services to displace unauthorized media file sharing currently being conducted by consumers on a massive scale.

This shows the P4P working group from a whole other perspective doesn’t it? We have no doubt that the researchers involved in this have the best of intentions, and that they really want to develop a new technology that benefits P2P users and ISPs. We also believe, however, that the MPAA and other rights holders who are part of the project, will push their agenda forward sooner of later.

The DCIA collaboration is an initiative from Hollywood’s big shots and several of the larger technology corporations. Back in 2002, both sides got together and decided that it would be a good idea to start a working group to keep an eye on future technological developments. Below, we quote a paragraph from one of the original letters (pdf) discussing the matter, signed by the CEOs of the MPAA, Walt Disney, Sony Pictures, AOL Time Warner, Vivendi Universal, Metro-Goldwyn- Mayer, Viacom and News America (emphasis added).

We thus propose the establishment of a new high level working group, independent or as part of an existing process, to find technical measures that limit unauthorized peer-to-peer trafficking in movies, music and other entertainment content.

And so the DCIA was born, which later started the P4P workgroup. We will leave it up to the readers to decide whether this is a serious threat or not, we will find out sooner or later anyway.

There is one other “dark” aspect of P4P we want to mention though, something that hasn’t been reported elsewhere, even though it can have some very negative consequences for P2P users.

By looking at the latest P4P research report, we come to the conclusion that P4P might slow down the downloads of people who use non-P4P clients, or those who are on an ISP that doesn’t support P4P. This is because P4P users will be more likely to share with local peers, while regular P2P users share with everyone (note that both can be in the same swarm). This goes against Net Neutrality principles, although this depends on how one defines Net Neutrality.

Since P4P prioritizes local traffic, P4P users will share less with users who do not use the technology. This will affect both the upload and the download side, but the data in the report seems to suggest that the give and take ratio is worse when P4P is enabled, so they take more from other ISPs (relatively) than they give back (mild leeching). This is most likely facilitated by the fact that upload speeds tend to be slower than download speeds.

Let’s conclude by saying that the researchers from Yale University and The University of Washington came up with a promising technology that could potentially speed up P2P downloads, at least for some users. Getting ISPs and filesharing developers to embrace this new technology will not be easy though. ISPs will sure be motivated, as it will save them money. However, we’re not so sure that BitTorrent client developers (and others) will adopt it so easily, since it might degrade performance on non P4P ISPs.

The largest threat (as usual) might come from the anti-piracy lobby, as they will probably push for content filters or other anti-piracy measures. They haven’t done this so far, but to us this seems to be inevitable.

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