Napster is wrong poster child for peer-to-peer networking

The recent U.S. federal appeals court decision against Napster Inc. is a setback for promiscuous copyright violation. But it is not an indictment against the usefulness of peer-to-peer enhanced networking. Industry pundits who claim that Napster started the trend in peer-to-peer resource sharing not only misunderstand the history of the Internet, they also inappropriately link a service that is primarily used for stealing music with personally controlled systems designed to help distribute content created by individuals.

Let’s start with a few facts: Napster is primarily used to distribute music from commercial CDs. This holds true even for popular performers whose concerts are illegally recorded and the tapes traded in the bootleg underground. If you don’t believe it, get a Napster account and search around for yourself. Even in the “grey areas” of the music world, Napster is used primarily for simple music theft. How did the peer-to-peer system business arise from a swamp like this?

The “Napster-alikes” that have sprung up generally have no better intentions than Napster. The Napster-like programs that allow swapping files other than music quickly became little more than pornography-trading zones. It is yet another ugly swamp that seems almost unredeemable.

But peer-to-peer is too good an idea to leave to the folks who want to just steal and ogle. Given that the Internet was pretty much started by individuals swapping files from their own computers or allowing file swapping from their parts of shared computers, peer-to-peer clearly has more promise. Lotus Notes was a pioneer in letting systems administrators centralize file sharing or letting users do it themselves in a controlled manner, and many workflow and collaboration systems did much the same.

Clearly, peer-to-peer file sharing is nothing new. To make it useful, you need to add a few features, such as an easy way for users to find the information they need from any of their peers. Even with that, there’s not much value to doing this on a user-by-user basis. That’s why most IS departments choose to centralize corporate information: they can easily control who has access, how the information is organized and who can update it.

New products jumping on the peer-to-peer bandwagon go much further than file sharing, of course. Some of them include instant messaging and chat, collaborative searching, shared text and white board discussions, mailing lists and so on.

Basically, peer-to-peer software takes all the features we have learned to love and puts them on end-user machines instead of central servers. Is this a good thing? The trade-offs have not changed in 30 years: central administration helps organize groups and stifles individual communication. The latest wave of business peer-to-peer software simply brings up the centralization debate yet again. Fortunately, there’s no need to talk about stolen music and porn in that debate.

Hoffman is director of the Internet Mail Consortium and the VPN Consortium. He can be reached at