P2P: They can slow it down, but they can't kill it, says new research paper

By Jon Newton 11/25/02

Scene: DRM 2002 - 2002 ACM Workshop on Digital Rights Management
Date: November 18, 2002
Place: The Wyndham City Center Washington DC, USA
Subject: DARKNET !!!!

Yep. Held in conjunction with the Ninth ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security (CCS-9), DRM 2002 had a lot of papers from A White-Box DES Implementation for DRM Applications to Theft protected proprietary certificates and towards the end was (shudder) The Darknet and the Future of Content Distribution by a stellar cast of writers including no lesser star than Microslot's Paul England.

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Paul will go down in f(l)ame as the man who mooted the Secure PC, or, "making minor modifications to the PC’s hardware to make a secure version of the Windows Media Player". He also said, "We must convince the record industry that the PC is better than the compact disc in terms of piracy," pointing out that, "any 14-year-old can now buy a CD, copy it with a 'ripper' program and post it on the Web for all his friends to share".

His co-authors were P. Biddle, M. Peinado and B. Willman (Microsoft Corp) and you could be forgiven for thinking their paper was all about how the Forces of Light (Microblot, the RIAA, MPAA, et al) will eventually defeat the Forces of the Darknet, the wicked practitioners of "peer-to-peer file sharing, CD and DVD copying, and key or password sharing on email and newsgroups".

But what's this?

In their abstract, they say, "We speculate that there will be short-term impediments to the effectiveness of the darknet as a distribution mechanism, but ultimately the darknet-genie will not be put back into the bottle." [Our italics.]

Does this mean ........?

Yes. Because far from explicating in gruesome detail how the Forces of Light will decimate their opponents with legal action ("the most powerful challenge to the darknet"), viruses, spamming, and so on, which in the past, "have lead to minor disruptions of the darknet, but could be considerably more damaging", B, E, P & W say (shudder):

"There is evidence that the darknet will continue to exist and provide low cost, high-quality service to a large group of consumers. This means that in many markets, the darknet will be a competitor to legal commerce."

And worse, "... if you are competing with the darknet, you must compete on the darknet’s own terms: that is convenience and low cost rather than additional security."

Heresey! And from two of Microplot's finest!

"Throughout this paper, we will call the shared items (e.g. software programs, songs, movies, books, etc.) objects," they say. "The persons who copy objects will be called users of the darknet, and the computers used to share objects will be called hosts.

"The idea of the darknet is based upon three assumptions:

"The darknet is the distribution network that emerges from the injection of objects according to assumption 1 and the distribution of those objects according to assumptions 2 and 3."


It goes on:

"One implication of the first assumption is that any content protection system will leak popular or interesting content into the darknet, because some fraction of users--possibly experts–will overcome any copy prevention mechanism or because the object will enter the darknet before copy protection occurs. The term 'widely distributed' is intended to capture the notion of mass market distribution of objects to thousands or millions of practically anonymous users. This is in contrast to the protection of military, industrial, or personal secrets, which are typically not widely distributed and are not the focus of this paper."

It also states, "The dramatic rise in the efficiency of the darknet can be traced back to the general technological improvements in these infrastructure areas. At the same time, most attempts to fight the darknet can be viewed as efforts to deprive it of one or more of the infrastructure items. Legal action has traditionally targeted search engines and, to a lesser extent, the distribution network. As we will describe later in the paper, this has been partially successful. The drive for legislation on mandatory watermarking aims to deprive the darknet of rendering devices. We will argue that watermarking approaches are technically flawed and unlikely to have any material impact on the darknet. Finally, most content protection systems are meant to prevent or delay the injection of new objects into the darknet. Based on our first assumption, no such system constitutes an impenetrable barrier, and we will discuss the merits of some popular systems.

"We see no technical impediments to the darknet becoming increasingly efficient (measured by aggregate library size and available bandwidth)."

After going into the Evolution of the Darknet ranging from 'Early Small-Worlds Networks' through 'Central Internet Servers' to 'Peer-to-Peer Networks' such as Napster - "the service that ignited peer-to-peer file sharing in 1999" - B, E, P & W explain (among many, many other things) why watermarking has "commercial drawbacks and severe technical deficiencies," and the deterrence factor of fingerprinting, "is small," concluding:

"There seem to be no technical impediments to darknet-based peer-to-peer file sharing technologies growing in convenience, aggregate bandwidth and efficiency. The legal future of darknet-technologies is less certain, but we believe that, at least for some classes of user, and possibly for the population at large, efficient darknets will exist.

"DRM systems are limited to protecting the content they contain. Beyond our first assumption about the darknet, the darknet is not impacted by DRM systems. In light of our first assumption about the darknet, DRM design details, such as properties of the tamper-resistant software may be strictly less relevant than the question whether the current darknet has a global database. In the presence of an infinitely efficient darknet – which allows instantaneous transmission of objects to all interested users – even sophisticated DRM systems are inherently ineffective. On the other hand, if the darknet is made up of isolated small worlds, even BOBE-weak DRM systems are highly effective. The interesting cases arise between these two extremes – in the presence of a darknet, which is connected, but in which factors, such as latency, limited bandwidth or the absence of a global database limit the speed with which objects propagate through the darknet. It appears that quantitative studies of the effective 'diffusion constant' of different kinds of darknets would be highly useful in elucidating the dynamics of DRM and the darknet.

"Proposals for systems involving mandatory watermark detection in rendering devices try to impact the effectiveness of the darknet directly by trying to detect and eliminate objects that originated in the darknet. In addition to severe commercial and social problems, these schemes suffer from several technical deficiencies, which, in the presence of an effective darknet, lead to their complete collapse. We conclude that such schemes are doomed to failure.

"There is evidence that the darknet will continue to exist and provide low cost, high-quality service to a large group of consumers. This means that in many markets, the darknet will be a competitor to legal commerce. From the point of view of economic theory, this has profound implications for business strategy: for example, increased security (e.g. stronger DRM systems) may act as a disincentive to legal commerce. Consider an MP3 file sold on a web site: this costs money, but the purchased object is as useful as a version acquired from the darknet. However, a securely DRM-wrapped song is strictly less attractive: although the industry is striving for flexible licensing rules, customers will be restricted in their actions if the system is to provide meaningful security. This means that a vendor will probably make more money by selling unprotected objects than protected objects. In short, if you are competing with the darknet, you must compete on the darknet’s own terms: that is convenience and low cost rather than additional security.

"Certain industries have faced this (to a greater or lesser extent) in the past. Dongle-protected computer programs lost sales to unprotected programs, or hacked versions of the program. Users have also refused to upgrade to newer software versions that are copy protected.

"There are many factors that influence the threat of the darknet to an industry. We see the darknet having most direct bearing on mass-market consumer IP-goods. Goods sold to corporations are less threatened because corporations mostly try to stay legal, and will police their own intranets for illicit activities. Additionally, the cost-per-bit, and the total size of the objects have a huge bearing on the competitiveness of today’s darknets compared with legal trade. For example, today’s peer-to-peer technologies provide excellent service quality for audio files, but users must be very determined or price-sensitive to download movies from a darknet, when the legal competition is a rental for a few dollars."

You have to read the entire paper to get the full flavour.

Go here for a juicy and unexpurgated copy. I guarantee you'll love the taste, especially because implicit in 'The Darknet and the Future of Content Distribution' is the conclusion that, since the Biggies can't beat p2p, they'll have to join it.

So all you people out there who are building Killer Apps?

Keep going.

And watch this space.


Jon Newton is the editor of p2pnet.net and is a regular contributer to MP3 Newswire. Jon's site is devoted to the politics of digital music and his insights as well as those of his co-writers can be read there. We urge to to explore it.

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