Reflecting On the 2010’s: Erosion of File-Sharing, Broadening of Rights

What has the decade looked like on the digital rights front? Drew Wilson looks back at the decade that was.

As many of you know, I’ve been writing news since around 2005. I’ve been around to see the big stories for more than a decade now. As a result, I’ve had the privilege of seeing what the news trends are and how they came and went. In fact, my coverage has carried through almost throughout the entire decade. There was a slight disruption around 2013 when ZeroPaid ultimately collapsed and I had to go through the long process of creating Freezenet, but beyond that, my coverage has been quite steady on the digital rights front.

Because of this, I felt that it would be a great idea to just broadly reflect on how things have gone in the last decade and even share some thoughts about how we got here.

The 2000’s Going Into the 2010s

A good characterization of the decade before would be the rise in file-sharing. While file-sharing has been around for much longer through bulletin boards and UseNet, the popularity really took off with Napster hovering around the late 90’s. Ultimately, the service was shuttered by actions by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), but that ill-fated decision would live on in infamy. Many argued that this would prove to be a major mistake that would never be reversed. Almost everyone was using Napster which is something that would never be repeated ever again.

Ultimately, this resulted in the fracturing of the file-sharing community. Many users would go on to use other networks like Gnutella (Limewire, Morpheus, BearShare), eDonkey2000 (eDonkey2000 and eMule), WinMX, and FastTrack (KazaA) to name a number of them. The original shuttering would ultimately be the beginning of anger directed at the RIAA and, to a large extent, the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America). Of course, that anger would only grow.

This anger grew and kept going thanks largely due to mass litigation campaigns by those organizations (largely the RIAA). Originally, these mass lawsuits became very high profile. As Cory Doctorow once put it, it’s like killing off a large number of file-sharers, then mounting their heads on pikes as a warning to other file-sharers to never repeat what these people did. In fact, there was a time when distinct lawsuit “rounds” were handed out. The idea at the time is to scare off other file-sharers by advertising a big number of alleged file-sharers getting sued.

Of course, such efforts proved to be, as predicted by many including myself at the time, a fruitless exercise. It’s like playing a reverse lottery. The chances of getting hit by a threat of a lawsuit is incredibly minimal. This is because that, yes, thousands are receiving lawsuits, but there are tens of millions of file-sharers out there. Even better is if you share music not controlled by the RIAA, you are almost certainly going to fall off the litigation radar completely. That is largely why the thinking of “safety in numbers” was very popular thinking back then.

Of course, such mass litigation would prove to be completely unsustainable. There is, after all, a question of jurisdiction. If you are suing someone for copyright infringement in California, does that California court have the ability to hear the case if the alleged file-sharer is in New York? It would prove that such thinking would lead to the collapse of the mass litigation campaigns like that. People certainly still got sued, but you ultimately saw the disappearance of headlines of how 10,000 file-sharers received copyright infringement litigation paperwork.

There, of course, was the next best thing for the RIAA – sue an individual or two for an extremely high amount as a warning to others. That’s how we got to see the Joel Tenenbaum and Jammie Thomas cases. However, issues like how constitutional it was to sue a teenager for hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars for the trivial issue of sharing a handful of copyrighted works. Naturally, this didn’t exactly win over very many sympathetic hearts and minds for the RIAA and MPAA cause as well.

Ultimately, the 2000’s really saw the rise and fall of the mass litigation of file-sharers by major record labels. These type of lawsuits are actually still ongoing to this day, but at a much smaller scale. At best, we see the occasional lawsuit filed against maybe a dozen file-sharers, but that typically proves to be much less headline grabbing then thousands being sued at once.

Towards the end of the previous decade, we also saw the gradual rise of BitTorrent. While this would prove to be the ultimate network and client of choice to many, BitTorrent largely built on innovation and concepts by previously created file-sharing networks and clients.

Concepts include breaking the file into smaller pieces which has been a staple in file-sharing since the rise and fall of KaZaA and the various Fast Track clients out there. Additionally, the concept of strong hashing was brought about when anti-piracy organizations engaged in file pollution on FastTrack. Protocol encryption was a staple in the eMule community and in response to protocol filtering (known as protocol obfuscation) and would ultimately be adopted by the BitTorrent community as well.

While there isn’t necessarily much in the way of groundbreaking new innovation, BitTorrent did refine what was already out there and brought some interesting improvements. Instead of having a network devoted to all the files out there, miniature networks are set up for an individual file. The files themselves were broken down into much smaller pieces (instead of maybe 9MB, pieces often were as small as a few kilobytes). Additionally, an active peer system was created rather than a passive one (which is why you saw yourself in queue’s in other networks).

Another tweaking of how file-sharing would work would also prove to be hugely beneficial to the longevity of BitTorrent – the tracker system. Instead of having network mega peers or servers holding the network together, websites would create their own trackers to manage how swarms (aforementioned miniature networks) were handled. The benefit is the fact that if legal action was taken against the site operators, there were plenty of other trackers out there ready to absorb the blow. While this would be improved by the older technique of a special hash (magnet) URLs and eliminate the tracker system entirely, this allowed BitTorrent to go on to live to this day.

The 2010’s and the Erosion of File-Sharing

So, while the 2000s saw the rise and continued perseverance of file-sharing, the 2010’s would prove to be the decade that file-sharing would erode as something in the public spotlight. This situation was largely predicted back when the file-sharing lawsuits were at their prime. That thinking is that if major record labels and music studios simply adapted their business models to a modern era, they could reap the benefits of modern technology.

Of course, major record labels and movie studios were very slow to adapt at best and outright hostile to change at worst. So, services started being created at various points in the 2000s by various developers. One of the often cited major success stories is iTunes. While a DRM ecosystem at first, Apple would ultimately convince labels to ditch DRM.

Netflix, a once little startup that then movie retail giant Blockbuster turned down the chance to buy for a mere $50 million, also gradually rose in popularity and became a giant by the 2010s. It would ultimately grow to be a massive tech giant and one of the targets people refer to as something that needs to be broken up.

Steam, the video game service that started in the early 2000’s, would also grow to be a major giant in selling video games online.

Then, there are countless other services like Hulu and Spotify that would also join an ever growing crowd of services.

That leads us to another service: YouTube. Once nicknamed “SueTube” by the major media outlets because the content isn’t authorized by major media conglomerates, would ultimately be bought by Google. While YouTube struggled to turn a profit due to high bandwidth costs, this would finally become a reality in more recent times.

What do all of these services (and more) have in common? They would ultimately prove to be a major threat to file-sharers. Simple adaptation, as so often said over and over again in the past, would be what major record labels, movie studios, and other major entertainment corporate interests never were: a threat to the world of file-sharing.

Of course, many of these services would specialize in specific forms of entertainment (like Netflix for TV series and Steam for video games), so the field is still quite crowded. Ultimately, what we see now is like the authorized version of what file-sharing was in the 2000’s: a crowded field of contenders vying to become a dominant player in the market. In the early 2000s, you had eMule, uTorrent, and Shareaza. Today, you have Netflix, Steam, and YouTube. A lot of these services have that air of “this is going to be here forever no doubt” much like the file-sharing clients of yester-decade.

The delay of the authorized giants is, of course, understandable when you had the mentality of major media conglomerates when the unauthorized variation was at their prime. One major record label executive famously responded to the rise of the Internet by hoping that this whole Internet thing would “go away”. As such, it took outside influence to finally get the media conglomerates on board with the idea that this “Internet thing” is actually here to stay.

The result on the file-sharing world would prove to be profound. Before, everyone had their favourite file-sharing client downloading and uploading (some more than others) 24 hours, 7 days a week. CDs and DVDs were burned and external hard drives were filled. Today, more people have a Netflix subscription, randomly browse YouTube, buy off of BeatPort, or “buy” Steam games (still unfortunately contains DRM).

File-sharing never really died, but for many, the idea of trying to download a single on a private BitTorrent is more frequently seen as archaic compared to just punching the artist and title on YouTube’s search bar and streaming it. Sure, plenty out there know the audio quality is much lower than a FLAC file, but like vinyl, lossless audio would prove to be a niche interest as more people simply want to just hear the song no matter the quality. For some, the idea of getting sued by a major record label for sharing a track on a file-sharing network seems to be a relic of a bygone era – especially considering the popularity of private BitTorrent trackers.

So, fewer people are uniformly hanging on to the latest client-side development of a file-sharing program and fewer people are getting absolutely outraged when a number of people get sued by a major corporate interest for file-sharing activity would ultimately be the net result of all of this. As such, the focus on file-sharing has been relegated to the background for the most part.

The 2010s and the Rise of Digital Rights

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that digital rights would also disappear along with such a keen interest in File-Sharing. In fact, the truth is far from that. During my early years as a file-sharing and digital rights journalist, people often looked at my comments talking about “digital rights” and give cock their heads to the side in confusion. Some even told me how downloading copyrighted music is “not a right”. Of course, this is a major point of confusion for some people back then as that wasn’t what I was referring to all those years ago.

Digital rights is a much more broad umbrella concept. This includes the right to access the Internet. What rights do I have to protect my privacy in this digital age? If I took a few seconds from a film and used it for educational purposes online, is that Fair Use/Fair Dealing? Can I record myself playing a video game and post it online after as a journalistic endeavour? If I question someones opinion and the response is a defamation lawsuit, what rights do I have to defend myself (re: SLAPP)? These are among the issues when discussing the umbrella term of “digital rights”. When people look at it from that perspective, opinions start to diverge into a much larger spectrum.

So, back then, the digital rights could very well have been, if I downloaded a copyrighted work, and I get caught, what is a fair and reasonable fine? Is it a few hundred dollars (akin to a speeding ticket) or should I be on the hook for millions thanks to the outdated thinking of statutory damages? That, of course, is a lot more murky than whether its OK to download and share copyrighted works.

In this decade, digital rights would ultimately prove to be much more front and centre whether people wanted it to be or not. Perhaps the best example of digital rights being an issue foisted onto people whether or not they wanted it would be in the event of a data leak and a data breach. When the Equifax data breach occurred, people largely didn’t choose to have their information compromised, it just happened. Not everyone really signed up to be an Equifax member, their membership was largely chosen for them. Now, these victims have their personal information compromised and the question for a number of them is, “what recourse do I have?”

In various ways, this story would prove to play out over and over again countless times over. My information was leaked or stolen, it is being bought and sold on the dark web, the company didn’t do enough to protect my information, where do I go from here? This situation really did become a fundamental shift.

In 2007, the decision would theoretically be mine when I chose to download a copyrighted track on a file-sharing network. In 2017, it was not my choice or even intention of having my username, password, social security/insurance number, and date of birth randomly being bought and sold on the dark web.

Of course, this lack of choice isn’t tied exclusively to data leaks and breaches. A case can be made for Internet censorship and the lengthening of copyright laws to name two examples.

The lines begin to blur when talking about being a part of a major social media network (Facebook being a prime example of this). Yes, it’s an active choice in the end, but the social pressure of being a part of it is certainly immense. People generally respond less favourably when you suggest that you could contact them via e-mail and more favourably if you say that you’ll Friend them on Facebook. Some people do a sort of “digital fasting” where they disconnect from Facebook for a varying period of time. Still, that pull Facebook has shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s not so much something you willingly join because you think its something interesting and cool, but more something you have to go to just to keep up with friends and family. So, when Facebook leaks your information, things do get blurry on whether you had a choice in the situation depending on who you ask.

Ultimately, digital rights really rose in prominence in recent years partly in response to the fact that the choices you can make in protecting what rights you have is growing increasingly slim. Going back to the right to access the Internet, in 2006, the concept to most seems to be pretty silly. Internet access isn’t a “right” people have, its a privilege. You pay an ISP and you have some cool innovative technology flowing in and out of your home. That picture has largely changed. Now, try to get a job without Internet access. It is much tougher now than it was before. Government jobs and major chains tend to be more dependent on the idea that you have some sort of access to the Internet. That really does change the conversation over whether Internet access should be a right. That’s not even getting into being able to pay bills or learning about product recalls, or a host of other things more often utilizing the Internet.

This fundamental shift on how digital rights are more foisted on people whether they like it or not isn’t entirely unique to the 2010s. As some long time readers of mine will recall, I’ve often deviated from file-sharing news to issues like warrantless wiretapping. Governments like Canada and the US have delved into concepts like not requiring a warrant to listen in on conversations. One thing I did notice in the previous decade is how split opinion can get. For some, the government sales job of saying warrantless wiretapping is only used to “catch the bad guys” would prove to be a very successful campaign. As such, some people figured that there is nothing wrong with the concept at the time.

Of course, you have that theme once again of how digital rights weren’t really the result of an active choice of someone, it was foisted on them. The age-old debate of “If you’ve done nothing wrong, then you have nothing to hide” vs. “If I’ve done nothing wrong, what gives you the right?” certainly comes to mind. No one who wound up being the subject of government surveillance when in their own home, it was something the government just moved to have in place. Personally, I would have no idea what a precursor that would ultimately be back then to what I see today.

An angle we see today is how ISPs control a oligopoly on communications. ISPs are also partly owned by large media conglomerates. So, we see the issue of municipal ISPs being a thing or the ability for small community Internet and “mesh nets” to thrive occasionally popping up. There is the ever-present debate about network neutrality where ISPs want to pick and choose who lives and who dies on the American Internet. There is the question of what responsibility corporations have to protect user information. How can creators defend themselves on YouTube when copyright trolls begin stealing ad revenue from them? Can I encrypt my communications in such a way that keeps government spooks from peering into what my conversations are? What websites can ISPs censor?

It’s these types of issues we’ve seen pop up. Indeed, it is much harder to track than the monolithic issue of file-sharing back in the 2000s, but that is the reality we have today.

This leads us to the response. Digital rights organizations are increasing in strength and numbers. For instance, in Canada, you had myself, Michael Geist, Russell McOrmond, and CIPPIC leading the way on digital rights before. Now, you have myself, Michael Geist, and Open Media. Other countries have their own digital rights organizations. As time moves forward, we are going to see a rise in importance of such people and organizations. This includes getting the word out on what is happening and finding unifying causes to rally around (like what we saw with Article 13 opposition in Europe). Ultimately, and as “lefty” as this sounds to some, showdowns are going to happen in both the courts and in government. Some battles will be new while others will be repeated. Still, there is going to be an increase in reliance on digital rights organizations. This will, of course, lead to greater pressure for such people and organizations to perform, but like it or not, these are the types of people who will be integral in shaping digital rights in the future. After all, for a lot of issues, you won’t necessarily always have a choice in what issues you find yourself involved in.

Looking Forward to the 2020’s and Beyond

With so much knowledge of the past and present, the inevitable question is what we see as possible things to come in the future. It’s always difficult to really predict the future – especially in technology. This is partly because precedence can be difficult to get – at least in the past. What we can do, however, is make educated guesses of where things are headed in the next decade and beyond.

The best way to make educated guesses is look to the past for inspiration and ideas. One thing we’ve seen in the past is how the sense of community has collapsed into a small set of social media platforms (Facebook and Twitter being two examples). This has made it incredibly difficult to run independently run web forums and chat rooms because everyone is, ultimately, on the mega popular platforms instead with all of their friends.

While this has fundamentally reshaped how social interaction typically occurs online today (for better or for worse), this is probably not going to be the only way such a giant compacting of audience will likely occur.

Remember earlier on how I mentioned the large number of file-sharing clients that were out there in the early 2000s? This ultimately collapsed and it became just BitTorrent, UseNet, and a little bit of eMule. The other clients are certainly available for the most part, but most stuck to an even smaller set of networks. This mirrors the rise in choice for different legal alternatives such as YouTube, Steam, Spotify, and Apple. What is a very real possibility is that we’ll see something similar happen to services.

This is not that obvious for the time begin given how many new streaming services are popping up by major studios. Of course, I think that a number of them will find themselves to simply be late-comers who “missed the train”. We already see this from some common complaints of these services. One complaint that sticks out to me is that “I pay for Netflix, Hulu, and various Steam subscriptions, why should I also be expected to pay for Disney Plus, Amazon Prime, Vudu, CBS All Access, and HBO Now?

Basic economics suggest that customers have a limited amount of disposable income. Certainly, that disposable income can sustain Netflix, and Steam, but in the continuing trend of wage stagnation, can that disposable income also sustain Disney Plus, Amazon Prime, CBS AllAccess, and HBO Now? Only time and shareholder confidence will tell. What is ultimately more likely is that not everyone will survive this new wave of services and it will ultimately fold in itself. Some might survive (eMule survived the rise of BitTorrent after all), but others might not especially giving what kind of backing they have.

What some services will likely be pushing is the concept of being an all purpose general service for everything. We’ve already seen such moves by Google with YouTube offering paid streaming services to watch movies through YouTube Red and offering games through its Stadia services. Amazon used to just sell books and now they want in on the streaming game. The push to start getting in to others profit margin will be very prominent and it will likely result in casualties in the process.

The knock-on side effect is that this will also raise questions on how far these services can go before anti-trust becomes an issue. Certainly, we’ve seen rumblings about this over the big scary “FANGS” term used to describe the tech sector. While it might be touch and go the credibility of some of these rumblings, when the collapse in services start to happen, tech critics will feel smug thinking that they were right about anti-trust issues even though it would be a rather new phenomenon.

In a similar manner, we’ll see privacy become a major issue continuing to evolve. In the last few years, we’ve seen many major data leaks and breaches. Some of these even became so high profile that major media outlets noticed. A few examples certainly come to mind including Equifax and Capitalone. Some even mistakenly refer to the Cambridge Analytica as a breach when it was ultimately open data mining of public data.

Regardless, the rising prominence of privacy related stories is likely a sign of things to come. Personal information such as biometric or credit card data are increasingly becoming people pay attention to. With the way such personal information is handled this day and age, unless something fundamental changes, sooner or later, it will become a practice that is completely unacceptable.

One possibility is that governments will react by requiring companies partake in major super databases to keep track of unique identifying data. If you want to purchase something online, the government will require you to login to the government database before you can make a transaction. This concept will probably borrow heavily from concepts already in place such as paying for something with PayPal. The only difference is that the government controls the data and they would be bound by much more stringent policies than what we see in the private sector. Indeed, we’ve seen something similar in the UK with the bizarre concept of “porn passes” so people can obtain porn online.

A second possibility is that private companies will act as major security firms. Acting like a sort of personal information vault, these companies will probably have an “online pass” system where an ID is used to connect with the database. After that, third part vendor services will synchronize with it and a transaction will take place. The vendor handles the selling of services and products while the third party security vendor will handle the storage of personal information.

Indeed, we have seen a similar concept in the past when Microsoft tried to create the “passport” system. Unfortunately, it may have been an idea ahead of its time and not viable when it was actively pushed. After all, it was at roughly this time that personal information wasn’t something people paid particular attention to as much as we do now. So, many happily allowed third parties to simply handle all this sensitive information thinking that they’ve probably got it all figured out anyway.

Regardless of the outcome, the void is certainly there: a viable solution to handle personal information in a secure manner in our interconnected world. As such, we’ll probably see an increase in the role of our digital identity. For many interactions, vendors will increasingly want a verifiable identity to conduct proper secure business.

That leads into problems with privacy. Both possible outcomes of how personal information is handled have an identical problem: the centralizing of personal information. Before, data leaks and breaches would happen and a few million peoples personal information is compromised. If that data is centralized, that will likely to prove to be a red flag to a bull as hackers see it as the biggest personal information goldmine ever. So, such a system will be tested like no other and it will likely lead to catastrophic problems when such a mega-database is breached. If a 100 million account data breach is an explosion in the news, a compromise of that magnitude would be the equivalent of a supernova explosion.

Still, like how legitimate entertainment services eventually took over and became more prominent, privacy services will likely see their own wave of startups problems, failures, and success stories. In short, privacy could very well be the next big digital gold rush everyone and their dog wants to be a part of.

Another problem that is very possible in the future is the rising problem of conglomeration. Already seen in the ISP sector where ISPs are now increasingly in lock-step with major media and entertainment outlets, we will likely continue to see this in services. That problem will ultimately lead to free speech problems. If an independent creator whats to post their music online for free, an increasingly smaller pool of services will eventually offer that platform. Even then, the platform will likely not exactly reach the kind of audience as major services like YouTube.

Many have already pointed out the shift YouTube is going through. Before, places like YouTube rose to prominence when independent creators posted popular content to it. With the inclusion of ads, this ecosystem largely continued for some time to the annoyance of a number of viewers. Unfortunately, things are changing that creators have cried foul over. More specifically, YouTube is shifting away from small time creators trying to make a name for themselves and more to mainstream content like a major RIAA artists music video, TV shows, or even movies. Very likely, this will only continue to get worse as independent voices continue to get drowned out.

There will, of course, be counter-movements to this. Services that proudly display badges saying they don’t require your personal information. How about an independent variation of these services? The problem is going to be getting that same draw as the, by then, major monopolistic services have, so it will continue to be a struggle.

So, in short, we’ll likely see small spurts in growth in small areas, but for the most part, services will simply be bought out by others as competition takes hold. Competition will become an increasingly big problem and privacy and free speech won’t be that far behind. While these issues might not necessarily be something everyone follows, they may not have much choice in the matter. They are only along for the ride. How much people fight for their rights will determine how many rights they will have left in the aftermath.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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