Odi et Amo: Networked Collaboration – by “Varoon B – YLT2012”

Before the internet was the highly sophisticated, well-structured web of everything that we know it as today, the top ten search results for “Adolf Hitler” returned everything from Hitler’s biography to kitlers, kittens that look like Hitler.  No joke.

As the internet developed, the web—and all the information it contained—was structured.  As the web grew, it became an increasingly attractive resource for people, so they began using the internet.  And then more and more followed suit.  And finally, even those people who used to hate on the internet joined the internet bandwagon.  This phenomenon is described by Metcalf’s Law, named after a brainy hotshot who co-invented the Ethernet (but who also got his PhD at Cambridge Community College).  The idea behind the law is simple.  It basically states that the value of a network increases (really quickly) as the number of users in the network increases.  We can all relate to this trend.  After my friend Florian had to go back to Germany after studying abroad at my high school, he told me to get Skype.  And then my friend George told me that he had Skype, as did my other friend Danielle.  Downloading Skype allowed not only me to contact Florian, but also Florian to contact George and Danielle, and George to contact Florian and me, and Danielle to contact Florian, George, and me, etc.  You get the idea.  The value of the network grows—order n log n or n2as the number of users does.

Before you dismiss this as some esoteric mathematical phenomenon, it might help to remember that this idea is related to a mind-blowing experiment conducted in the Netherlands.  The city of Drachten, with a population of 45,000 people, is verkeersbordvrij—free of all traffic signs.

If you’ve ever been to India and witnessed first-hand the anxiety that drivers there are subjected to in spite of all the road traffic signs, you may wonder what could have possessed anyone to propose something so radical.

But after two years of observing the unusual policy, the city witnessed a considerable decrease in accidents, and other cities in Europe began adopting similar policies. Perhaps surprisingly, the lack of strict, formal laws didn’t result in complete anarchy or dystopia.  The take-home lesson from Dracthen is that sometimes, even in unexpected contexts, standards are more effective than rules; given how networks—whether road maps or social networks—grow so quickly in value, this observation is particularly salient when constructing the frameworks upon which we build networks like the internet.  Instead of feeling burdened with tons of laws to abide by, people can respect each other’s welfare more effectively if they are liberated from them. If people feel like they are part of a social group—they’ve got your back, you’ve got their back—the Internet Gods do their magic, and things just click.

These occurrences are particularly pronounced in peer production (think free software), which consists of three basic steps: producing, accrediting, and distributing content.  NASA Clickworkers, a project that basically distributed and crowd-sourced scientific tasks, demonstrated that the web maintains an altruistic, consensus-esque culture.  So many people were willing to devote their time and energy to things that didn’t directly benefit them (or at least, not monetarily) that together, their combined computing power surpassed that of the world’s fastest supercomputer.  Dang.  (Sidenote: Check out more distributed computing projects here.  Some of them, like RPI’s project to construct a 3-D image of the Milky Way galaxy, are really cool.)

NASA's Clickworkers project asked volunteers (instead of graduate students and scientists) with computers to demarcate craters on Mars.

Next, our peers have also seamlessly integrated the process of establishing relevance and accreditation into our virtual worlds.  I have yet to purchase an item from Amazon without having access to plenty of customer reviews (of both the product and the shipper if I’m buying a used book).  Amazon also includes that handy “customers who bought items you recently viewed also bought these items” bit that always tempts me into buying more stuff.  All of these services are ways of establishing relevance and accreditation.  The “related items” pitch by Amazon teases you with stuff that is almost always relevant or related to the thing you’re searching for or interested in, and all the customer reviews help establish the legitimacy of the product you’re thinking about purchasing.   These services have been integrated into the internet in more subtle ways, too.  Google’s PageRank algorithm (named after Larry Page, FYI) does this.  Pages that are linked to more frequently among more popular sites are prioritized in Google searches.  Thus, these links embedded within sites are a form of establishing relevance and accreditation.  Good websites will be linked to by other good websites more often, thus constructing a kind of peer-to-peer relationship among the sites we find on Google.

The final step of peer production is distribution, which speaks for itself, though it is worth noting that distribution is cheap online.  Together, they all form a powerful combination.  Slashdot, Reddit, and Yelp all do these things in one form or another.  And so does Wikipedia, the king of online peer production.

Needless to say, Wikipedia is pretty darn awesome.  It’s grounded in a spirit of reporting in a neutral point of view, not conducting original research, using verifiable sources, and assuming good faith.  You don’t need me to praise Wikipedia for you to appreciate it.  We’ve all used it, and we will most likely continue to do so.

As a loyal consumer of Wikipedia, I will defend it to great lengths.  I also religiously consult Yelp every time I eat out.  However, I do think there are some drawbacks to commons peer production—or rather, to its potential consequences.  True, even though peer produced projects like Wikipedia have been found to about as inaccurate as Encyclopedia Britannica, it could still be quite a bit more accurate, and the Seigenthaler incident is a reminder of this fact.  And true, the Essjay Controversy is proof that such endeavors are not perfect.  Those are not my objections.

Peer production begs the question of peer consumption.  Is it not unreasonable to venture that peers—even if loosely defined—are consuming those things that their peers produced?  Perhaps this is a bit of a stretch.  Our peer networks do serve great functions, but relinquishing the asymmetrical allocation of power that characterized the institutional foundation of property also has consequences.  That power, traditionally reserved for the owner, itself performed a valuable service in the same way that information (Yelp, what place has good food?  Is the service good?) embedded within networks and their collaborative webs do.  The absence of those distributed webs allowed those wielding ownership (power) a sense of authority, validity, and legitimacy.  The centrality of the information economy served a purpose in the same way the decentralized economy does, but they have different consequences, which are already materializing and are most sinister when we think about our source of information.

Not to get too meta (as this can apply to Facebook itself, not just to the use of Facebook), but don’t tell me you haven’t ever logged onto Facebook at the end of a long day, only to realize two hours later that you hadn’t read the news that morning and just spent a ton of time (during which you meant to do homework) reading a random assortment of articles that your Facebook friends happened to upload.  A lot of people joke about getting their news from Facebook, and in many ways, that appears undesirable.

“A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.”  -Mark Zuckerberg

Wait, what?!

Conservapedia, a conservative spin-off of Wikipedia, was founded in 2006 in response to Wikipedia’s alleged “liberal bias.”  The main page links to other pages including Why does science work at all?, Is science a game?, and The rules of the game.  The website claims that global warming is a liberal hoax and that homosexuality is caused, among other things, by liberal ideology creeping into education and by “psychological tactics used by homosexual activists.”  In all seriousness, propoganda has always existed, and it will always exist.  I just fear that, although peer production confers benefits that enhance all of our lives, peer production may also facilitate the degradation of a robust and transparent information economy, especially as we consume the products of peer production in an increasingly personalized internet age.  I’d guess that the primary consumers of Conservapedia are “peers” of its producers.  No one else would consult it seriously.  Peer production may beget peer consumption, and to the extent that we allow it to supplant our high quality sources of information, they are potentially damaging.

“It will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not been tailored to them.”  -Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google

Pirates, and Copyrights, and Torrents! Oh My! – by “Nick D”

Let’s set the scene. An endless sea vista opens to the sound of waves and a slight breeze. A large wooden boat comes into view, silhouetted on the ruddy orange sky.

Queue epic, driving music.

Enter, The Pirate Bay.


What is the Pirate Bay and how does it work?

The Pirate Bay claims to be the largest BitTorrent tracker online and has been described as the most visible facilitator of illegal downloading. The Pirate Bay was created in 2003 by Piratbyrån (“Pirate Bureau”), a Swedish anti-copyright organization, and was then run independently by a group of individuals starting in the later part of 2004. The site is currently run by an uber-shady company registered in the Seychelles, an island nation northeast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.

From The Pirate Bay in the Seychelles to the World: Catch us if you can!

BitTorrent is a peer-to-peer, or “P2P” protocol, which is used to distribute large amounts of data online and allows for rapid download times. BitTorrent relies on the torrent, which is a file containing information on a target file’s component locations. These component pieces are spread across many hosts. When a user requests a download of a particular target file, the torrent seeks each of these components to piece together the target file for the user, which can be opened when all of the pieces have been assembled. This results in very fast download speeds of large files (movies, TV shows, etc.).

For those of you that are interested in how this relates to client-server download processes…

Client Server Download Process
BitTorrent Download Process

BitTorrent file sharing accounts for 28.40% of peak time aggregate traffic in Europe and 17.23% in the US, where it was only recently overtaken by Netflix (for peak time aggregate traffic). According to an MPAA report, the worldwide motion picture industry estimated a loss of more than $7 billion as a result of Internet piracy in 2005 alone.

Torrent downloading services offered by The Pirate Bay are free, and uploading/commenting capability only requires free registration. The Pirate Bay justifies their lack of censorship by noting the “broad spectrum of file sharers” that use The Pirate Bay. This means that everything from Barney and Conan O’Brien episodes to pornographic material can be downloaded using The Pirate Bay. And of course, most (if not all) of this is copyrighted material.

And then Conan O'Barney walked in...


Legal Lash-Back

How, you might ask, can they do this?

Simply put, they do.

The Pirate Bay takes no responsibility for the copyrighted material that is illegally dispersed thanks to their service. The following argument is readily posted on their website:

“Only torrent files are saved at the server. That means no copyrighted and/or illegal material are stored by us. It is therefore not possible to hold the people behind The Pirate Bay responsible for the material that is being spread using the tracker. Any complaints from copyright and/or lobby organizations will be ridiculed and published at the site.”

The Pirate Bay is notorious for this last part; putting up for public display takedown notices it receives from everyone and their grandmother, as well as the (usually vulgar, crass, inappropriate, and hilarious) response they send back. To acquaint you with the type of sentiment that The Pirate Bay typically responds, below is a medium sized cornucopia of phrases excerpted from various responses to Dreamworks, EA, Warner Brothers, and others’ Take-Down Notices:

  • We demand that you cease and desist sending letters like this,
    since they're frivolous and meaningless.
  • It is the opinion of us and our lawyers that you are ....... morons.
  • stop lying.
  • you should please go sodomize yourself with retractable batons.
  • We demand that you provide us with entertainment by sending more
    legal threats. Please?
  • The DMCA is a US-specific legislation, and TPB (The Pirate Bay)
    is hosted in the land of vikings, reindeers, Aurora Borealis
    and cute blonde girls.
  • Go fuck yourself. 

Quite a list of colorful phrases we have here! (if you would like some more, there is a whole list here)

But, you might wonder, why hasn’t The Pirate Bay been prosecuted and shut down?

Well, the Swedish government tried. After a criminal complaint was filed by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Swedish Police executed a raid of The Pirate Bay, confiscating servers and shutting down the website in 2006. Dan Glickman, CEO of MPAA said in a statement, “Intellectual property theft is a problem for film industries all over the world and we are glad that the local government in Sweden has helped stop The Pirate Bay from continuing to enable rampant copyright theft on the Internet.” Problem solved? Absolutely not. In three days after the raid, the website was back online, with the following graphic:

Take That MPAA!

So much for the raid…


And Now, Some Commentary…

First, it is important to note that these guys founded the Pirate Bay:

The Real Pirate Bay

Gottfrid Svartholm (left) and Fredrik Neij (right) have both been charged (along with Peter Sunde and Carl Lundström) with “assisting [others in]copyright infringement” due to their association with The Pirate Bay. While in the process of an appeal, each defendant was sentenced to 1 year in prison and required to pay damages totaling 30 million SEK (US$3,620,000) (this verdict will only be upheld after all appeals have been processed according to Swedish Law).

Good with computers? Absolutely.

Creepy Looking? Sort-of.

Digital-Pirates in deep $#!%? Looks like it.

But they probably see themselves as modern-day Robin Hoods, stealing from who they consider as the rich (MPAA) and giving to those they consider as the poor (the swath of users on The Pirate Bay). However, while Robin Hood stole from a disillusioned, powerful king and gave back to the people who the king stole from, the users of The Pirate Bay haven’t been preyed upon. We operate in a (largely) capitalist world. If the public wants what MPAA and the rest of the entertainment industry produces, by all means the public is entitled to what they want and the entertainment industry is entitled to the profits generated by that demand.

Dispersing copyrighted material is illegal and/or immoral however you slice it, because it denies the producers of a good from their due share of benefits. It is stealing. The Pirate Bay provides the perfect conduit for this to occur. It is difficult for them to make the argument that they are not at fault for the illegal dispersal of copyrighted material because they aren’t the ones that hold the digital files – just the links to them… They call themselves the PIRATE bay for god sakes.

Yes, PIRATE I say!

Most people would agree that what The Pirate Bay facilitates is illegal, but where does it fall on the spectrum of illegal dispersal of copyrighted material?

If someone makes a DVD recording of a playlist and gives it to their friend, it is an isolated case. Sure, the friend could go home and make another copy and give it to his or her friend and so on and so forth, but the infrastructure is such that there is both time involved and physical transport of tangible objects that are required to share copyrighted material. This by the way, is still illegal, but does not make front-page news like The Pirate Bay.

The reason why The Pirate Bay’s activities are so criminal is because of the scope of individuals that can illegally acquire copyrighted material online. BitTorrent allows for anyone with internet access to download the latest piece of entertainment of their fancy. The infrastructure is designed to allow for maximum dispersion and minimal effort for the user. As opposed to a single DVD copy, which for all purposes will not hurt the entertainment industry, a BitTorrent file of the same movie makes the copyrighted material available to anyone on the internet – and all you need is enough hard-disk space to store the target file!

The Pirate Bay would, by this argument, fall on the far end of the illegal spectrum…

The (Illegal) Spectrum

The only reason that the Pirate Bay can get away with this is because they hide behind international disagreement when it comes to copyright law. With the company currently running the site in the Republic of Seychelles, they only need to abide by Seychelles’ copyright law. This highlights a gaping hole in the current international copyright system. What are some countries solution? Block thepiratebay.com. Denmark, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Malaysia, Netherlands, Norway, China, Sweden, and the UK have all experimented with blocking thepiratebay.com at some point in the recent past (according to Wikipedia).

What can countries, interested in protecting its citizens’ works but not interested in internet censoring, do? Not much (as of now) against sites like The Pirate Bay. Perhaps getting on good terms with countries where infringers hide and convincing the country to take action (like in Sweden) would work. How about against downloaders and uploaders using a site like The Pirate Bay? If they are within the borders of your country, huge fines would probably do the trick.

If they are outside your borders?

Tap your heels together 3 times and repeat “There’s no place like home”; with the current international copyright conundrum, there’s not much else you can do.

A Threat to Freedom, Democracy, and Puppies – by “Francesca S”

it's easier to find pictures of puppies than freedom or democracy
it’s easier to find pictures of puppies than freedom or democracy

It strikes me as an odd situation where you essentially are in the business of making and distributing skeleton keys, and Mr. Boback will help everybody buy new locks, and then, with your business plan of remaining one step ahead of the law, then you will probably make and distribute burglar tools, and then Mr. Boback or someone else will further improve the locks …

If I were you—and obviously I am not—I would feel more than a shade of guilt at this point for having made the laptop a dangerous weapon against the security of the United States. The 9/11 Commission reported that the central failure was a failure of imagination. Mr. Gorton, you, in particular, seem to lack imagination for how your company and its product can be deliberately misused by evildoers against this country.

This quote is taken from a Congressional hearing in 2007 on national security. The threat in question is not some biological weapon, or high tech explosive. No, the “dangerous weapon against the security of the United States” is peer-to-peer networks. Congressman Jim Cooper’s is addressing Mark Gorton, the CEO of Limewire, and expressing his concern for the national security threats caused by file sharing programs.

Testimony in the hearing details how classified documents had been accidentally shared on P2P networks by an expert on information system security. Other witnesses described the ease with which one can find mistakenly shared tax returns, medical records, or credit card numbers. The conclusion drawn is that those creating the programs are to blame, they are “distributing skeleton keys,” in an attempt to subvert our personal freedoms.

The Congressman argues that it is the responsibility of the software makers to regulate how their software is used. Limewire should anticipate its user’s incompetence, and protect them against themselves. Another congressman brings up the fact that Limewire is the only one of numerous file sharing programs (Imesh, BearShare, and Kazza for example) which did not, following the Grokster decision, implement mandatory copyright material filtering. Limewire instead implmented an opt-in filter, that gave users the ability to choose whether or not to use the feature.

More recently, this past spring, there have been more hearings on the national security risks due to P2P file sharing, as well as considerable lobbying by the RIAA for stricter regulation of these systems. However, it is difficult to come up with a solution that will monitor the system without limiting the ways in which it can be used. “With great power comes great responsibility.” The internet is a tool with unimagined powers, and I believe the American people can deal with a little responsibility.