Online Sharing: An Unstoppable Force

Sun, 2 Jun 2013

If numbers are to be believed, millions of people share file with each other. Everyone's sharing something these days, even the FBI, major record labels, the U.S. government, the Vatican, and even the Canadian police and government. In fact, research published by Jean-Paul Van Belle at the University of Cape Town, South Africa said that only 11% of respondents claimed to have never engaged in sharing with their friends. Even the RIAA admits there's an ocean of sharing going on and there's no end in sight.

This is a good thing: There are lots of people sharing files and more money being spent by those that do because study after study shows that by and large people that share files actually spend more money than those that don't.

Despite this, companies routinely spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year trying to prevent people from sharing with their friends through various legal and technological means. There are several technical measures employed across the board to try to stop it, but are unreliable, and some are downright lousy:

First up is DNS blocking. This technique consists of ensuring that someone doesn't get the proper response to their DNS query. They might be told the domain doesn't exist or perhaps the DNS response returns a different IP address, such that someone ends up at a different website with a message that access to the site in question is blocked. It seems like it would work in theory. Not so fast. World famous torrent search engine The Pirate Bay proved DNS blocking largely ineffective by simply moving their site to a different domain name. ISPs could block the new domain, but The Pirate Bay would simply opt to move again. In addition to this, people can use various proxies to bypass DNS blocking, use alternate DNS servers, or even a VPN connection where the DNS queries also go through the VPN. The ISP would not know which sites their customers were even accessing in the first place.

URL filtering is similar to DNS blocking, and is about as useful. The URL filtering system requires ISPs to maintain a database of blacklisted URLs. These URLS may be entire domains or subdomains. While this may seem like a workable solution at first glance, the solution falls flat because it is almost impossible to keep the database up-to-date and is also easily bypassed through the use of proxies and VPNs.

Enter swarm poisoning, a more clever, if not smarter, solution. Swarm poisoning is the practice of posting fake files on peer-to-peer networks in hopes of gleaning the ISPs of everyone participating in the swarm. This strategy worked well in the era of LimeWire and the like, but it can't compete with the one-two combo of the torrent and the VPN.

Even a fingerprint system has an achilles' heel. In a fingerprint system, an ISP "sniffs" packets of data as they pass through and assigns them a value, or fingerprint. The fingerprint is then associated with a particular item and stored in a database. From then on, if someone downloads something and there's a match in the database, the ISP and the copyright trustee can be alerted immediately. Unfortunately, the technology hasn't been shown to be practical for real-time operation. The Achilles heel? Digital fingerprinting is virtually blind to files stored in compressed and encrypted archives and to people using a VPN or a properly configured proxy.

By far the go-to technology is DRM, or Digital Restrictions Management. Reviled by everyone except companies, DRM is essentially a virtual lock on digital files. The noblest of hackers see it as their duty to crack DRM and release the goodies to all who would have them, and that's exactly what they spend their days doing. DRM is also completely ineffective.

Why then, when so much of the world sees nothing wrong with sharing copies of things they like, are companies trying to stop it? When will they realize they're ultimately playing a game of Whac-A-Mole where the mole always wins? When will they try to start working with their customers instead of against them? Indeed, research has shown that file sharing is directly related to the availability of other options and that availability is directly under the control of the industry.

If not, the people of the world will go on doing what they've been doing and sharing files amongst themselves and companies will lose out on the money that they could have recieved. File sharing really isn't a problem but an indication that people are unhappy with the current offerings. People that engage in file sharing, then, are really underserved customers.