His provocative argument registers peer-to-peer as a key site of contest over freedom and control of information.
Part 1: It's a peer-to-peer world (here in limbo 4AY)
In the first of his five-part series, Siva Vaidhyanathan maps the fluid new territory of electronic peer-to-peer networks that are transforming the information ecosystem. Is this a landscape of enlarging freedoms where citizens shape the forms and meanings of social communication, or does it offer an invitation to entrenching state surveillance and closure?
Part 2: 'Pro-gumbo': culture as anarchy
Peer-to-peer technologies have precedents in the anarchistic and hybrid processes by which cultures have always been formed. Decoding anxious cultural preservationists from Matthew Arnold to Samuel Huntington, the second instalment of Siva Vaidhyanathan's five-part series reframes p2p in the light of other technologies and practices – cassettes, creolisation, world music – which likewise reveal the energetic promiscuity of culture. Any attempt to censor or limit this flow would leave cultures stagnant.
Part 3: The anarchy and oligarchy of science
Science is knowledge in pursuit of truth that can expand human betterment. But part three of Siva Vaidhyanathan's powerful series sees the free information flows at the heart of science being pressured by the copyright economy, the post-9/11 security environment, proprietary capture of genetic databases, and science policies of governments and universities. If commerce and control defeat openness and accumulation, what happens to science impacts on democracy itself.
Part 4: The nation-state vs. networks
In the last decade, the nation-state has survived three challenges to its hegemony – from the Washington Consensus, the California Ideology, and Anarchy. The promise of a borderless globalisation unified by markets and new technology has been buried. The fourth part of Siva Vaidhyanathan's compelling series asks: what then remains of the utopian vision of global peer-to-peer networks that would bypass traditional structures of power?
Part 5: Networks of power and freedom
The use by non-state networks of new communication technologies is challenging ideas about citizenship, security, and the nation-state. In response, the impulse to restrict or suppress is shared by states as different as the United States and the People's Republic of China. In concluding his five-part openDemocracy series, Siva Vaidhyanathan maps an issue that will define the landscape of 21st century politics.
Here we have for all of you the full part one... the entire 5 parts are able to be read at OPEN DEMOCRACY... & don't give up the fight
Part 1: It's a peer-to-peer world
The rise of electronic peer-to-peer networks has thrown global entertainment industries into panic mode. They have been clamouring for more expansive controls over personal computers and corporate and university networks. They have proposed radical re-engineering of basic and generally open communicative technologies. And they have complained quite loudly – often with specious data and harsh tones that have had counterproductive public relations results – about the extent of their plight.
But the future of entertainment is only a small part of the story. In many areas of communication, social relations, cultural regulation, and political activity, peer-to-peer models of communication have grown in influence and altered the terms of exchange.
What is at stake?
This is the story of clashing ideologies: information anarchy and information oligarchy. They feed off of each other dialectically. Oligarchy justifies itself through "moral panics" over the potential effects of anarchy. And anarchy justifies itself by reacting to the trends toward oligarchy.
The actors who are promoting information anarchy include libertarians, librarians, hackers, terrorists, religious zealots, and anti-globalisation activists. The actors who push information oligarchy include major transnational corporations, the World Trade Organisation, and the governments of the United States of America and the Peoples' Republic of China.
Rapidly, these ideologies are remaking our information ecosystem. And those of us uncomfortable with either vision, and who value what we might call "information justice", increasingly find fault and frustration with the ways our media, cultural, information and political systems are changing.
The most interesting thing about these challenges and battles is that we can observe how ideologies alter our worlds. Ideologies are, to use a phrase from Pierre Bourdieu, "structuring structures". Ideologies are lenses, ways of thinking and seeing, that guide our perceptions and habits. They are permeable and malleable. They are not determinative. But they make a difference in the judgments we make and the habits we develop.
In recent years we have seen the rise of anarchy as a relevant ideology in many areas of life. Our ideologies affect the technologies we choose to adopt. And using certain technologies can alter our ideologies. Anarchy is not just a function of small political groups and marginal information technologies any more. Anarchy matters.
This is more than a battle of ideologies. It is also the story of specific battles. There are dozens of examples of recent and current conflicts that arose out of efforts to control the flows of information:
Through such incidents, we can examine the following issues:
This essay is the first of a series for openDemocracy that will consider these battles for control of information. This introductory piece will examine the proliferation of peer-to-peer systems.
The nature of peer-to-peer
Peer-to-peer electronic networks such as Napster, KaZaa, and Gnutella, solve two communicative problems and create two more.
The first problem is somewhat trivial. Where do we find a convenient index to files on other people's hard drives? Or, in the case of Napster founder Sean Fanning, a Boston-area university student, how can I find music on other people's computers without asking them to expose themselves to threats by copyright holders?
The second problem is more substantial. How do we exploit two of the great underused resources of the digital age: surplus storage space and surplus processing power? More significantly, how do we do this in a way that is effectively anonymous and simple?
Fundamentally, peer-to-peer file-sharing systems such as KaZaa, Gnutella, Freenet, and the dearly-departed Napster attempt to recapture or at least simulate the structure and function of the original internet, when all clients were servers and all servers were clients.
This original vision of the internet, call it Internet 1.0, arose in the 1970s and devolved around 1994 with the rise of ISPs and dynamic Internet Protocol (IP) numbers. The handful of netizens of Internet 1.0 worked with mainframe computers linked to each other through the Domain Name System (DNS), which helped direct packets of data to the proper destination. Each sender and each destination had a discreet and constant IP number that identified it to the network hubs.
But as Internet Service Providers (ISPs) proliferated in the mid-1990s and connected millions of personal computers to networks for only several minutes or hours at a time, it became clear that rotating and re-using IP numbers would allow many more users to share the internet.
Thus began Internet 2.0, in which increasingly personal computers allowed their users to receive and consume information, but allowed limited ability to donate to the system. This extension of the network cut off personal computers from the server business. Most users donated information only through e-mail. And it became clear that while the internet once seemed like a grand bazaar of homemade goods and interesting (albeit often frightening) texts generated through community dynamics, it would soon seem more like a shopping mall than a library or bazaar.
Two new problems
Peer-to-peer file-sharing technology is a set of protocols that allow users to open up part of their private content to public inspection, and thus, copying. In the digital world, one cannot access a file without making a copy of it. From this fact arose the first peer-to-peer problem: there is no way to enforce scarcity on these systems. The popularity and common uses of these protocols produce massive anxiety within the industries that rely on artificial scarcity to generate market predictability.
The second problem is less well understood because there is no special interest constituency complaining about it. So states have stepped up to take the lead in confronting it. That problem is irresponsibility. Because most of what happens over peer-to-peer networks is relatively anonymous, servers and clients are not responsible for the ramifications of their communicative acts. Using widely available forms of encryption or networks that assure privacy, one may traffic in illicit material such as child pornography with almost no fear. In many places in the world, the availability of adult pornography or racist speech through peer-to-peer systems undermines a decade of efforts to cleanse the more visible and therefore vulnerable World Wide Web.
This second problem is actually a solution to another communicative problem that exists primarily in illiberal communicative contexts. Many of the same states that hope to quash pornography also want to quash the speech and organisational communications of democratic activists. So the very existence of these communicative technologies creates moral panics throughout the illiberal world as well as the liberal world. While some worry about the erosion of commerce, others worry about the erosion of power. And the same technologies that liberal societies would use to protect commerce might find more effective uses in Burma or China.
Listening to Napster
But most of the popular discussion about the rise and effects of peer-to-peer technology has read like a sports story: who is winning and who is losing? Some has read like a crime story: how do we stop this thievery? I am more interested in looking at peer-to-peer communication in its most general sense. How do we explain the peer-to-peer phenomenon? How do we get beyond the sports story or the crime story?
Peer-to-peer communication is unmediated, uncensorable, and virtually direct. It might occur between two computers sitting on different continents. It might occur across a fence in a neighborhood in Harare, Zimbabwe. What we are hearing when we listen to peer-to-peer systems are "bruits publics", or public noises – not the reasonable, responsible give and take of the bourgeois public sphere.
This is very old. What we call 'p2p' communicative networks actually reflect and amplify – revise and extend – an old ideology or cultural habit. Electronic peer-to-peer systems like Gnutella merely simulates other, more familiar forms of unmediated, uncensorable, irresponsible, troublesome speech; for example, anti-royal gossip before the French Revolution, trading cassette tapes among youth subcultures such as punk or rap, or the distribution of illicit Islamist cassette tapes through the streets and bazaars of Cairo.
Certain sectors of modern society have evolved with and through the ideology of peer-to-peer. Academic culture and science rely on an ideal of raw, open criticism: peer-to-peer review, one might call it. The difference, of course, is that academia and science generally require a licensing procedure to achieve admission to the system. The Free Software movement is the best example of what legal theorist Yochai Benkler calls "peer production", but what we might as well, for the sake of cuteness and consistency, call "peer-to-peer production".
This form of speech has value. But it has different value in different contexts. And while peer-to-peer communication has an ancient and important, although under-documented, role, we are clearly seeing both an amplification and a globalisation of these processes.
That means that what used to occur only across fences or on park benches now happens between and among members of the Chinese diaspora who might be in Vancouver and Singapore, Shanghai and Barcelona. As cultural groups disperse and reify their identities, they rely more and more on the portable elements of their collective culture which are widely available through electronic means.
The clampdown strategy
Several technological innovations have enabled this amplification and globalisation of peer-to-peer communication:
Understandably, states and corporations that wish to impede peer-to-peer communication have been focusing on these factors. These are, of course, the very characteristics of computers and the internet that have driven this remarkable – almost revolutionary – adoption of them in the past decade.
These are the sites of the battle. States and media corporations wish to:
These efforts involve both public and private intervention, standard setting by states and private actors. The United States Congress, the Federal Communication Commission, the Motion Picture Association of America, Microsoft and Intel have all been involved in efforts to radically redesign our communicative technologies along these lines. And they are appealing for complementary legal and technical interventions by the European Union and the World Trade Organisation.
These moves would create Internet 3.0, although it would not actually look like the internet at all. It would not be open and customisable. Content – and thus culture - would not be adaptable and malleable. And what small measures of privacy these networks now afford would evaporate. These are the dangers that Lawrence Lessig warned us about in 1998 in his seminal work Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. Only now are we coming to understand that Lessig was right.
These regulatory efforts have sparked an arms race. The very suggestion of such radical solutions generated immediate reactions by those who support anarchistic electronic communication. Every time a regime rolls out a new form of technological control, some group of hackers or "hacktivists" break through it or evade it in a matter of weeks. The only people who really adhere to these controls are those not technologically proficient: most of the world.
It might surprise casual observers of these battles that the important conflicts are not happening in court. The Napster case had some interesting rhetorical nuggets. But basically this was classic contributory infringement by a commercial service. KaZaa is a bit more interesting because it is a distributed company with assets under a series of jurisdictions and a technology that limits its ability to regulate what its clients do. KaZaa might collapse and only fully distributed, voluntary networks might remain: namely, Gnutella and Freenet.
The real conflicts will be in the devices, the networks, and the media products themselves. And there seems to be few areas of healthy public discussion or critique about the relationships between technology and culture.
Meanwhile, the strategies and structures that limit peer-to-peer communication also quash dissent, activism, and organisation in illiberal contexts – that is, oppressive, totalitarian and authoritarian states. And for this reason, p2p systems like Freenet – encrypted, completely anonymous, and unquenchable – are essential tools for democratic activists in places like Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Burma and China.
The lessons for the public sphere
Where there is no rich, healthy public sphere we should support anarchistic communicative techniques. Where there is a rich, healthy public sphere, we must take an honest, unromantic account of the costs of such anarchy. And through public spheres we should correct for the excesses of communicative anarchy.
Still, we must recognise that poor, sickly, fragile public spheres are more common than rich, healthy public spheres. And the battles at play over privacy, security, surveillance, censorship and intellectual property in the United States right now will determine whether we will count the world's oldest democracy as sickly or healthy.
Anarchy is radical democracy. But it is not the best form of democracy. But as a set of tools, anarchy can be an essential antidote to tyranny.
Coming from OD