The Evolution of Public File Sharing

The current storm around YouTube, the dominant platform for sharing created video content, which has seen content censorship and demonetization, has parallels to what happened with public file sharing in the late 1990s and the 2000s. I’m going to briefly recap the history of file sharing, then see what lessons it offer YouTube and the forces that seek to censor it.

napsterIn 1999, the Napster service appeared. Napster consisted of a client program, which users installed on their computers, a server, which allowed users to find files on each other’s computers, and a proprietary protocol used by clients to talk to the server and each other. It quickly became the preferred way of finding and sharing primarily music. Despite the fact Napster wasn’t hosting any copyrighted material, the RIAA (record industry) shut them down with a lawsuit less than two years later.

This let the cat out of the bag. An open source implementation of the Napster server that anyone could run (OpenNap) already existed. Then Napigator, a service that allowed a tens of thousands of OpenNap servers to register, released a plugin for the Napster client that let users find files on any OpenNap server registered with Napigator. The Napigator service maintained no list centralized list of content, only the list of servers. In 2002, the RIAA began going after the OpenNap servers, reducing their numbers by 80%.

In 2000, AOL prevented the release of the open source Gnutella client. The protocol was reverse engineered and multiple peer to peer clients began to appear, Limewire being the most popular. When Limewire the company was shut down in 2010, a fork of their program called Frostwire immediately popped up.

In 2003, BitTorrent services like The Pirate Bay began appearing. The distributed nature of the protocol meant that, as bandwidth increased, it became a much better way to share files than one-to-one peer-to-peer solutions like Gnutella. For the first time, it was practical to shared larger files such as movies. While some of the bigger sites, such as KickAss Torrents, have been shut down, others, including the back from the dead Pirate Bay, are still running today.

Aside from the music industry’s battles with file sharers, there is it’s struggle with YouTube. See Rolling Stone’s Inside YouTube’s War with the Music Industry. Yet few artists hold out on having their own official music channels–as Rolling Stone says, YouTube is the new radio–and it is trivial to install a plugin that lets you download videos, and to convert a video’s audio track into an MP3 with the open source program Audacity.

So how does this relate to the current YouTube adpocalypse? YouTube is in a very similar position to Napster, being the web site where people go to share their content. But, if YouTube continues to take down or demonetize videos, you can expect content creators to move to new platforms. Minds.com offers an open source project that allows you to host your own site, reminiscent of OpenNap.

If the censors come after minds.com, vid.me, and others, how long until content platforms are distributed, like bitTorrent? Already, social networks like Akasha, which is distributed to prevent its censorship, are emerging. Is it just a matter of time until platforms like this are combined with bitTorrent to allow a distributed video sharing by content creators? Time will tell, I suppose.

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About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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