Anonymous P2P May Not Deliver — But It Doesn't Need To

from the do-the-math dept

Rick Falkvinge, the head of Sweden’s Piratpartiet has just given a new interview, and it’s worth a read. As you might expect from the leader of a pro-piracy political party, he’s rather bullish on the future of filesharing:

[A]nonymous encrypted P2P is just a few years off (and encrypted BitTorrent is already becoming ubiquitous). More interestingly, our cellphones are increasing in capacity dramatically. When P2P debuted with Napster in 2000, the average hard drive was the same size as my cell phone memory is today. Using technology already available, BlueTooth 2, I can share content from my cellphone anonymously — say, in a café or so. This will probably just accelerate, with cellphones being more and more capable, holding more and more data, and opening up to customized applications. I’m betting that a P2P app operating on Bluetooth is not far off for the iPhone, for example. Imagine the anonymous sharing that will happen in the background just on the average subway train! The possibilities are very, very encouraging.

File sharing will find new ways — any measure to stop it will be ineffective the instant it is in place.

I can’t say that I agree with everything Falkvinge says here. Although it’s true that Bittorrent encryption is fairly widespread, the technique is employed to avoid ISP throttling, not as a useful means of protecting filesharers’ identities. And anyone who’s paid any attention to Bluetooth’s miserable security record — or who has just been frustrated when trying to get two devices to pair — can be forgiven for laughing wryly at the idea of the protocol evolving into something suitable for ad-hoc high-speed filesharing.

Falkvinge’s optimism about anonymous P2P is perhaps the most interesting part of his filesharing triumphalism. In truth, it’s a considerably harder problem than he implies: the internet is simply not designed for two-way communication with a truly unknown party. Sure, black hats can spoof IP addresses — but that’s a technique that’s only useful for a one-way communique, such as when flooding a target with junk packets in a denial of service attack. If you want a response you either need to reveal your identity or relay the traffic through a third party who can be counted on to keep everyone’s identities secret.

This sort of relay system has been successfully employed by Relakks proxy service, as well as the Freenet and Tor projects, the latter two of which also add encryption to limit the relay nodes’ complicity. But if Falkvinge is counting on the lack of prosecutions against these projects as evidence of the technique’s legal unassailability, he’s dreaming. Given that both Freenet and Tor are widely rumored to be havens for child pornographers — and the understandable (if occasionally misguided) zeal with which such crimes are prosecuted — it seems like only a matter of time before someone operating a Tor node is arrested for facilitating illegal activity (the infamous Tor embassy hack has already attracted law enforcement’s attention, of course).

But Falkvinge’s larger point seems sound: there’s no indication that P2P can be stopped. But this isn’t because of some just-around-the-corner bulletproof technology; it’s simply a matter of filesharers’ overwhelming numbers — numbers that, as Falkvinge implies, may be better measured by the rapidly-expanding count of P2P-capable network interfaces than by the number of humans operating them.

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Comments on “Anonymous P2P May Not Deliver — But It Doesn't Need To”

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Dean Landolt (profile) says:

Another sisyphusian struggle...

Sure, bluetooth stinks. And anonymity’s tough. But as you acknowledge, there’s no stopping p2p—even if it’s private darknets facilitated by more “substantially noninfringing uses” like, for instance, collaboration or groupware apps.

But your inference that it’s just a matter of time before Tor is figured out (or even outright outlawed) is suspect at best. Even if law enforcement were able to break a Tor node, whatever technique they use will only work once…

Rick Falkvinge (pp) says:

Think networks, not technologies

You don’t need to have anonymizing technologies to hide your wired IP – think in terms of the network access.

Today, wireless access is becoming ubiquitous. Several cities have announced city-wide networks. Most cafés have WLAN. Stockholm’s subway is about to get full free WLAN coverage.

If you want to be anonymous, it won’t be a problem in a few years’ time, unless government mandates every café guest to show ID and be registered (not very likely to happen).

Michael Long (user link) says:

Stopped? No. Slowed?

Is perhaps a different story. What if ISPs allowed for unlimited bandwidth downstream, but charged on a per-megabyte basis for upstream on most home accounts?

Forget expensive and error-prone filtering, traffic shaping, etc., just count bytes. I suspect that if a lot of people had to start paying out of their own pocket for other people to get “free” content, they’d suddenly become a lot less enamored of the concept.

Michael Long (user link) says:

Re: Re: Stopped? No. Slowed?

“The first ISP to do so would lose a lot of business, and would quickly reverse the decision…”

Ummm… based on how badly P2P is trashing their networks, I could see ALL of them deciding to implement it industry-wide.

Someone could, of course, decide to buck the trend, but now THEIR network is getting trashed, and I suspect they’d have to charge premium rates to support it.

Which would tend to have the same effect…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Stopped? No. Slowed?

“Ummm… based on how badly P2P is trashing their networks, I could see ALL of them deciding to implement it industry-wide.”

Surely you are joking right? I do some work at a datacenter in Atlanta, GA. And these ISPs have access to a 10gbit trunk, yet they only buy small chunks of bandwidth. If the ISPs were to run trunked off of the peering groups at 10gbit, then broke up the bandwidth properly, then there would be no more trashed networks. The ISPs can complain all they want, but until they fix their networks, I’m not listening.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Stopped? No. Slowed?

Ummm… based on how badly P2P is trashing their networks, I could see ALL of them deciding to implement it industry-wide.

Trashing? According to who? Most ISPs admit that there’s a fair amount of bandwidth, but it’s hardly causing trouble on their network. Well, the lobbyists are whining about it, but the technologists are pretty clear that it’s no big deal, and the only reason the lobbyists are whining about is to get subsidies:

Laird Popkin (user link) says:

ISP's and P2P can work together

“based on how badly P2P is trashing their networks, I could see ALL of them deciding to implement it industry-wide.”

The P4P Working Group allows P2P networks and ISP’s to work together to optimize P2P traffic, improving performance while dramatically reducing the cost of P2P traffic to ISP’s. There’s a lot of room for us to work together to make our customers happy.

For more information, email me ( or read these presentations from our most recent P4P Working Group meeting: In particular,–%20ISPs%20&%20P2P.ppt presents a good overview of who’s involved in P4P and how it benefits ISP’s and P2P networks.

Anonymous Coward says:

Don’t underestimate what the government can or can’t do. How do you know there isn’t some huge underground data center in Virginia that has row upon row of servers that monitor every single packet.

You think the best hackers are out there working on their own? Trust me, they are employed by governmental agencies with 3 or more initials. If you can imagine it, they are probably doing it, or will be doing it soon.

It is the same with the department of defense. The vast majority of citizens only know a fraction of the capabilities and the new weapons that are currently available, some get out because they are being used, some don’t get out but are being used, some sit in a warehouse just waiting to the need to be used.

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