By Drew Wilson
Every few years, the idea of using anonymous networks pops up in discussion from time to time. Often, this is the result of some event such as the RIAA suing users en-masse or ISPs throttling certain protocols. The latest prediction comes from a a posting on Slashdot in which the author says that the rise of anonymous networks is inevitable. Drew Wilson examines some possible barriers as to why it might not be so inevitable.
Let me first start off by saying that I’ve been actively around file-sharing discussions since at least 2005. I’ve passively watched these debates for longer, but if you want a hardcore date that I started participating in the debates, it’s about 2005. During that time, I’ve seen discussions surrounding anonymous networks crop up from time to time. I’ve seen people trying to propose file-sharing service “Ants” which actually suffered from some security vulnerabilities, Darknet networks, iP2P software, Freenet, Retroshare, the rise of Private BitTorrent websites and, of course, the increasing use of VPNs. Save for some adoption of Retroshare and an increasing interest in VPN, non of the above really took off compared to vanilla BitTorrent adoption and cyber lockers.
In more recent times, there’s been the construction of a six strike system in the US also known as the Copyright Alert System (CAS). While the rollout of such a system is currently ongoing, a Slashdot contributor posted that “the idea of users anonymizing each others’ downloads is so elementary, that I literally mean it’s inevitable that we will see the rise of such software. Whether I’m in favor of it or not, it’s going to happen. In fact, under certain assumptions, there’s really only one logical direction that it can evolve in.”
The author goes on to put forth a rough sketch of what an anonymous network might look like. The process of making one anonymous would involve users communicating with each other rather than relying on servers to organize the traffic much like how a tracker organizes traffic in BitTorrent. Each user would share bandwidth and rout through multiple users before the data stream reaches its destination.
If you’ve been around as long as I have, you’ll probably be saying to yourself that this idea sounds strangely familiar. In fact, it’s more or less what Freenet is. That project was released in March of the year 2000. The question is, why didn’t this take off in the first place? After all, mass litigation was already under way by then by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).
Part of the problem was that the network quickly became associated with the distribution of child pornography. If you connect to the network, you have no idea if the traffic associated with you is associated with the sharing of a Linux distribution, the latest film or something related to a pedophilia ring. That point alone drove a lot of the more experienced file-sharers away.
Push/Pull Factors of File-Sharing Adoption
Another problem was that, as Geographers might say, when it comes to migration, there tends to be both push and pull factors involved. Arguably, the same could be said for users who might consider migrating from one file-sharing network to the other.
The push factor for using Freenet is the fact that its anonymous and the possibility for getting busted for copyright infringement is reduced. However, because of the association of more highly illegal content flowing, that push factor is cut off at the knees.
The pull factor is that users are getting sued left and right for copyright infringement on these networks. The problem is that while thousands of users received threat letter (and some of those users did find themselves having to settle out of court), that was a proverbial drop in the bucket compared to the millions of users engaged in such activity every day. No surprise that getting litigated by the RIAA or the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) was seen as the Internet equivalent of getting struck by lightening in the 2000’s. Everyone knew it was a threat, but the threat was so small, it was hard to really worry about it. So, the pull factors were anywhere between miniscule to non-existent.
So, ultimately, with those two factors alone, unless the user had a very good reason to hide their tracks, there was little incentive for the userbase at large to adopt Freenet even to this day.
Rise of Cyber Lockers and Private BitTorrent Sites
Furthermore, the CAS depends on open networks to obtain IP addresses (whether or not those IP addresses are accurate is an entirely different thing of course). The system in and of itself is rendered useless when the transfer of data goes from peer-to-peer to server-to-peer. The rise of cyber lockers solved this problem long before the CAS was even thought up. Arguably, YouSendIt was the first, if not, one of the first, services that popularized cyber lockers. Rapidshare quickly took over in this field followed quickly by now defunct MegaUpload.
So, why did cyber lockers become so popular in the first place? First of all, the idea of server to user communication insinuates that bandwidth overhead would be very small – a criticism of anonymous networks. Second of all, sharing files using cyber lockers is extremely simple. Second of all, all a user has to do is upload the file to a server, the server would then spit out a download link and the user posts that download link to wherever that user wants to post that download link. So, it’s highly convenient compared to downloading and installing a whole suite of software just to connect to a network. Thirdly, since forums and blogs are already a staple for Internet communities, its no surprise that there was the rise of blogs and forums devoted to cyber locker related content. So it’s using something that is already familiar. Finally, a lot of content became available on cyber lockers which means such content could be accessible on search engines such as Bing, Yahoo! and, yes, Google.
So, there are push and pull factors involved for users going from traditional file-sharing networks such as Frostwire to cyber lockers. The push factors are the fact that there is a drain in users thanks to some people switching from open networks to private BitTorrent sites. With others switching to cyber lockers, that puts pressure on these networks both in terms of the content that’s being uploaded and number of sources which can increase the speed in which those files transfer from one user to another.
the pull factor is that content is becoming more readily available on cyber lockers and the transfer speed is only limited to whatever the users connection limit is and whatever bandwidth limit is imposed by these cyber lockers.
For private BitTorrent websites, the push factor is, again, number of sources and amount of content being made available is under pressure by both private BitTorrent sites and cyber lockers and the pull factor is that private BitTorrent sites promise better security, can boast a more reliable pool of content (especially when a user has access to multiple sites) and the speeds tend to be much greater than those on old open networks.
Why an Anonymous Network Would Struggle Even Today
If a private network as proposed were formed today, it would face significant pressures. Yes, if one were to look at such a network strictly from a technological perspective, the idea makes sense. However, this ignores several other angles such as those mentioned above. Firstly, it would face the standard problem any network would face when starting up: encouraging users to adopt it. This is difficult because the content simply wouldn’t be there from the very beginning.
Secondly, even though there is the CAS being formed, there are a number of alternatives that exist today that can theoretically help users avoid being monitored from such a system. That includes private BitTorrent sites, cyber lockers and UseNet – all three of which are already established today. There is nothing stopping many users from either moving towards such methods of downloading content or simply using such methods more exclusively if they use such methods already. A new anonymous network wouldn’t stand much of a chance to establish itself.
Thirdly, CAS is a localized phenomenon. For now, it’s exclusive to the United States (any, by extension, occurs in New Zealand and France to my knowledge thanks to the similar “three strikes laws”). File-sharing occurs around the world, so unless the whole world moves in this direction (ala Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP), any movement towards anonymity risks happening in a fragmented way (meaning citizens of one country wants it due to changes in the laws in one month, then citizens of another country wants it due to changes in local laws in another month, etc.)
Fourthly, if the climate is right where an anonymous network becomes the only viable option, then there would be a lot that would have had to happen to the point where establishing a network in the first place would be incredibly difficult. First, the banning of all proxy services which could theoretically cause problems in the network itself given that everyone is a proxy server in the end. Second, the blacklisting of websites en-masse to stop Private BitTorrent sites which would make distributing and obtaining any software to connect to said anonymous network incredibly difficult. Third, the banning of specific kinds of protocols to stop BitTorrent and UseNet which would kill the chances of connecting to said anonymous network in the first place. Four, establishment of deep packet inspection (DPI) which would, at the very least, greatly increase the overhead bandwidth cost just to stay connected on the Internet in the first place. Five, the mandatory registration and identification of all Internet users which would make any research into just learning about said anonymous network suspicious by authorities. Six, the complete removal of all Wi-Fi in the country which would render the prospect of wardriving moot. So, if all six points are established (I highly doubt it would happen any time soon), how does one go about learning about the anonymous network, downloading software to connect to the network and avoid suspicion of the ISPs who would have to police the networks? Even the sharing of thumb drives won’t solve all of these problems in terms of establishing such an online network.
Some Final Thoughts
There are also flaws with the CAS in the first place. One of the biggest is the fact that there are overhead costs associated with distributing warning letters in the first place. This is a highly underestimated problem because ISPs have to take an IP address and figure out who had what IP address at one time just to get the subscriber information. In a large network, one complaint is no easy task and an employee has to be paid just to carry out that task. Multiply that by hundreds of thousands of warning letters and you have a major added cost overheard that someone has to pay for.
If the CAS were to be effective, a large portion would have to receive warning letters on day one (we’re talking upwards of 85% – 90%). Then, if they ignore them, almost all of them would have to receive second warning letters. How many users would that be? Several million? Do that all in one day? Good luck getting the ISPs on board to carry out millions of IP address lookups in 24 hours. Time and cost overheard would make this an implausibly difficult task. Unless technology develops in such a way to make this a plausibly reasonable request, this probably won’t happen.
So, with all of these factors considered, I can’t see that we are even close to needing to consider using an anonymous network on a mass scale at this point in time. Even if or when CAS is fully deployed, it’s extremely unlikely we’ll be seeing a huge rise in an anonymous file-sharing network. In terms of general user behavior, a lot more has to happen for a massive movement like that to happen first. Today, we just aren’t there and we aren’t even close to seeing an anonymous network rising out of the ashes of other downloading methods right now. It doesn’t make such an idea impossible in the future, but for now, not happening.
Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85