Thursday, January 31, 2008

Will Peer to Peer Networks Save the Internet?

I am preparing to teach a session on Web 2.0 cultures tomorrow. The image above comes from a 2007 study on connectivity between nodes on the internet:

Three distinct regions are apparent: an inner core of highly connected nodes, an outer periphery of isolated networks, and a mantle-like mass of peer-connected nodes. The bigger the node, the more connections it has. Those nodes that are closest to the center are connected to more well-connected nodes than are those on the periphery. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Interesting. A review of the study in The Technology Review summarized the findings as; "Routing traffic through peer-to-peer networks could stave off Internet congestion, according to a new study." Very interesting. But now, in light of recent developments in Europe regarding the P2P situation (prosecuting the users of Torrent trackers, obtaining IP numbers and so on), such a study becomes much more relevant to not only how the internet functions, but how the interests of a relatively few people (some musicians and artists and most of those that sell their works) may affect how the internet is actually structured.
Just imagine if the nodes in the above image were centered around the organizations or people who had the rights to distribute intellectual property (publishing houses, recording companies, media empires, movies studios) and not those that had the knowledge, skill and desire/interest to do so (no matter what people are doing on the net, just the idea that the law dictates the technological stuctures). I would think that the nodes of the center would be larger, the overall structure would be more like a wheel with a narrow rim, and the "mantle-like mass of peer-connected nodes" would be thin and fragile (if not non-existent). The entire weight of information transfer networks would be focused on the center. This is a dangerous situation in many ways. Such old fashion concepts as democratic rights and freedom of expression are relevant, however what about the technical capabilities of the system to deal with a centralized arrangement? A project we ran in the northern Swedish Sami community of Jokkmokk in 2004 showed us that centralizing internet channels is a big mistake. The 20 000 mobile phone users that were in the tiny town of Jokkmokk (pop. 5000) for the annual winter market festival crashed the internet router that led to the town from the coast. The entire of southern Lapland (a very big geographic space) was without mobile phones, internet, ATM or electronic cash for 3 days.

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