Future of filesharing
8 May 2009 (The Star)
Can this illegal practice be stopped? Do its proponents want to stop? Any which way it looks like the hands of copyright holders are tied.
By SYAHRIR MAT ALI
PEOPLE download illegal content from the Internet using various means. This is a fact that nobody can deny.
About a decade ago, Internet users shared and traded MP3 files ripped from legally-owned music CDs by placing direct URL links in personal websites, FTP sites and newsgroups. It was a one-way, one-click, client-server model. It was crude but it worked.
After a while this method of filesharing became obsolete given the type of files that people began to share.
In the few years that followed, they began to share complete music albums and video clips, and before long, full-length movies. Accordingly, technology tried to catch up and a better filesharing platform called P2P emerged.
The likes of Gnutella, eDonkey2000, KaZaA, BearShare, Shareaza, WinMX and Napster quickly dominated the filesharing scene.
Intellectual property piracy flourished beyond control but ran into problems just as fast due to legal suits from intellectual property owners.
Rampant P2P activities ultimately caused critical bottlenecks in most countries as they used up the available bandwidth.
Consequently, Internet service providers (ISPs) took remedial action and capped certain P2P services, which gradually died out or lost users to the next generation of filesharing tools.
Broadband subscribers are now in possession of higher Internet bandwidth — in amounts and speeds never imagined in the early days of P2P.
Surprisingly, this situation has propelled the eventual return of the old client-server model in a very big way; through what is popularly known now as one-click hosting-the next solution for eager filesharers.
This time it is presented in a more organised manner, harnessing the world-wide availability of fast broadband Internet connections.
One-click hosting is commonly defined as "web services that allow Internet users to easily upload one or more files from their hard drives (or from a remote location) onto the one-click host’s server free of charge."
Two of the most popular one-click hosting service providers, RapidShare (www.rapidshare.com) and MegaUpload (www.megaupload.com), provide huge amounts of free disk space on their servers for users to upload their files.
Both services automatically provide a URL link for the respective files; which the uploaders can opt to announce to anybody and anywhere they like or to strictly keep it to themselves.
Both RapidShare and MegaUpload offer free and premium accounts. Free accounts differ from the premium ones in terms of, among other things, the maximum file size that can be uploaded and downloaded, and the expiration period of the files; the amount of files that can be downloaded simultaneously; the volume of downloads per stipulated time and the download speed.
But Internet users who are not in a rush and willing to download one file at a time can remain free account holders as long as they wish.
Even with a free account, they would be able to download a complete movie in less than four hours.
Before long, filesharers who were disappointed with the declining popularity of P2P and ISP threats, began to realise that one-click hosting was perfect for their filesharing purposes.
How it works
RapidShare and MegaUpload initially existed under the pretext of becoming a faster, simpler and secure data transfer provider or an offsite backup for Internet users and to help them share their legally-owned files with countless others without having to worry about the data transfer overheads. Anybody can upload and download any file for free!
However, to protect themselves from legal suits by the copyright owners, all of the one-click hosting providers came up with disclaimers pertaining to the uploading of copyrighted content in that they would be immediately removed if the copyright owners complained about them.
The ruling is perhaps just about the most conspicuous loophole there can ever be, as it can never be fully and effectively implemented due to the fact that most of the one-click hosting providers do not allow listing and browsing of the files they host.
Apart from the providers, only the original uploaders know the exact URLs that point to the uploaded files.
Hence the burden of locating and reporting the illegally uploaded files would then fall upon the copyright owners themselves.
And it is not a tenable feat considering that RapidShare, for instance, claims to have a storage capacity of several petabytes (1 petabyte is equal 1,000 terabytes) and even the publicly announced URLs can be anywhere in the countless number of filesharing forums, blogs and warez sites.
The current situation
It does not look good for copyright owners and they are indeed on the losing side because they are most unlikely to find anything copyrighted easily because only the most amateur of filesharers would name their files so obviously, such as "http://rapidshare.com/files/132643866/TheDarkKnight.part1.rar."
Instead, cunning uploaders devise obscure file-naming conventions, such as "http://rapidshare.com/files/132643866/TDK.part1.rar" in order to avoid being found out through Google searches done by monitoring teams employed by the copyright owners.
Furthermore, the download URLs are usually announced in forum sites that require membership.
Even if the copyright owners managed to somehow slip into the forums and successfully take the files down by reporting them to RapidShare or MegaUpload administrators, other forum users would immediately report the dead links to the forum moderators and new URL links would appear within hours.
This cycle can go on and on. It costs uploaders nothing to re-upload those files and share them except another hour of bandwidth for the task and in most developed countries, bandwidth is never a problem anyway.
MegaUpload, on the other hand, will automatically mask the original file name of any uploaded file with another form of URL such as "http://www.megaupload.com/?d=28WOQDYZ" which upon clicking will reveal "batman.unmasked-the.psychology.avi."
What may have been MegaUpload’s method to deter hot linking to their files has added another obstacle to copyright owners.
Recently, Alexa Internet, a web traffic and ranking company, positioned RapidShare as the 12th most visited website in the world; while MegaUpload followed at a distant 82nd.
In less than five years, both RapidShare and MegaUpload (and in due course more than 50 other one-click hosting providers as well) are fast becoming the de-facto standard in filesharing as more and more Internet users are attracted to their fast and "secure" method.
However, further down the rabbit hole, this filesharing model has also helped cultivate a new underground economy — one that attracts the partaking of the underground warez scene that thrives on the ever-increasing filesharing urges and needs among unsuspecting Internet users.
As of now, seemingly, nobody can do anything about it. This is the future of filesharing.
(Note: Syahrir Mat Ali is senior executive at the cyber media research department of CyberSecurity Malaysia. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect that of his employer or this publication.)